Muskoka. Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2002.
Dressed only in his underwear, Steve jumped from the warmth of his duvet and raced to the thermostat. He dialed up the maximum his electrical baseboard heaters could deliver, hoping its radiant heat would soon moderate the damp biting cold. He hurried to his tiny kitchen, filled his pot-bellied stove with chopped maple, kindling chips, and crumpled newspaper, then set it alight. The first priority of his day was to write a letter to Kerri, to thank her for everything she had done for his mother, to explain to her why he ended his marriage to Christine so abruptly, and to salvage whatever vestige of their budding relationship, if any, that remained.
He dressed in his well worn blue and white University of Western Ontario track suit, fetched a pen, a pad of writing paper, and an envelope, then sat at his wooden kitchen table and tried to write. “Dear Kerri;” was the extent of his progress. Words, no matter how well written, or brilliantly conceived, seemed inadequate. Kerri had made an indelible impression on him, one requiring some special form of communication, ideally verbal and private. His problem, however, was that eyeball to eyeball conversation with anyone was the last thing he wanted. What he really wanted was to escape from everyone, not necessarily to start a new life, but to look at things from the outside in and attempt to understand why, after thirty-five years of his life, he had essentially nothing. He tore the sheet from its pad, crumpled it, and threw it to the floor.
He picked up his telephone receiver and started to dial Kerri’s cell phone number. His finger stopped after pressing the fourth digit. “This is ridiculous!” he shouted, then picked up his pen and again started to write. He continued, painstakingly diagnosing each sentence until he was satisfied that he had put into words exactly what he wanted Kerri to know.
He folded the letter, inserted it into an envelope, addressed it, then applied the required postage. He put on his heavy tan colored work boots and his dark brown leather jacket and headed outside to his truck. He put the envelope in his glove compartment, then started the motor. It was time for his final trip to The Monster. He knew it was final because very soon it would belong to Jamie Stewart.
The weather, even for this time of the year in Muskoka, could best be described as miserable. The joys of summer were long gone. The sky was overcast with a thick unbroken layer of dark grey clouds. It was cold and wet. The temperature hovered just above freezing. It didn’t matter how much clothing one wore, it was defenseless to the penetrating cold damp air. The deciduous trees were devoid of leaves. The forecast was for worsening conditions. Silence prevailed. A combination of rain and wet snow made driving hazardous and being outside, uncomfortable.
The deteriorating weather conditions were in sympathy with Steve’s mood as he turned his green Ford onto the graveled parking lot of The Bass Lake Tavern, a rustic but cosy restaurant located on an isthmus separating Lake Joseph and Bass Lake. He put on his red Monteith Homes baseball hat, raised the collar of his jacket, and stepped from his vehicle. With his head lowered, he ran to the shelter of the restaurant. He was greeted by a loud chorus of cheers, hoots and whistles as he entered. A group of eleven local good old boys occupied the stools and high tables to his right. The tables were covered with beer bottles, a clear indication that happy hour had started. Happy hours were frequent, not confined to late afternoon, and an occupational hazard for good old boys in Muskoka.
“Hey, Monteith!” one local shouted. “What the hell are you doin’ here? Aren’t you supposed to be on a honeymoon?”
Steve forced a smile. “Change of plans, boys,” he said, in no mood to explain his changed circumstances to a group of beer drinking hooligans, all of whom he knew. He continued to the rear of the restaurant, took a seat in the corner booth, and gave an expressionless stare to Tom MacDonald, best man at his doomed Naples wedding, and also a sales associate at Muskoka Lakes Realty.
A large tall man with a deep baritone voice and a shock of prematurely grey hair and a personality that instantly endeared him to everyone, MacDonald had grown up in Muskoka. As a teenager, he was second in command at his father’s marina at Footes Bay on Lake Joseph. As he matured, he realized that selling real estate was substantially more profitable than pumping gasoline, fixing boats and selling ice cream cones. In the years that followed he had matured to become one of the most successful real estate sales representatives in the history of Muskoka.
“You want to talk about it?” MacDonald asked, equally expressionless. “I took the liberty of ordering you a coffee.”
Steve’s hazel eyes glazed as he tightened his lips and shook his head. “She broke my heart, Tom. She destroyed our marriage, our child, and our trust. It was like a switch had suddenly been turned off in my head. I had to get out. I hated to ruin Jamie Stewart’s party, but here was no way I wanted to spend one more micro second with a dishonest person. I still don’t and I never will.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Get lost until I find myself. I thought I had it all figured out, but obviously I didn’t. So now I need time to think about it. At this point I don’t know or care how long it takes.”
“What about Monteith Homes? You can’t just walk...”
“I have to, Tom,” Steve interrupted. “Jamie Stewart’s mad as hell. He’s going to pull the plug on the five million he loaned the company. When he does, I’m finished, and so is Monteith Homes. He’s giving me thirty days, so if I don’t sell The Monster by the end of January, he gets the keys, and Monteith Homes gets deep sixed.”
The corners of MacDonald’s mouth turned up, suggesting a smirk. “How can you be sure he’s going to pull the plug? All you did was stand up in front of all of his friends and family and cancel his only daughter’s wedding.”
MacDonald’s sarcasm succeeded in inducing a smile from Steve. “He got to The Ritz-Carlton before I did. Believe me, he was a very unhappy individual. He left no doubt that he couldn’t wait to call the mortgage.”
“Okay, so maybe he calls it, but Jamie Stewart’s not the only lender in the world. We might be able to find someone...”
Steve frowned and shook his head. “My heart’s not in it, Tom. You can’t know how badly I’ve been hurt. Maybe some day I’ll come back and start over, but not now.”
MacDonald gave Steve a penetrating stare. “I presume you’re asking me to sell an unfurnished, unfinished cottage at the north end of Lake Joseph, in the middle of January, and get more than five million for it.”
“I can do a lot of things, but I can’t walk on water, and that’s a hell of a lot easier than what you’re asking me to do. The market’s in the tank right now, Steve. Deep pockets just lost a dot com fortune. They’re nursing their wounds, sucking their thumbs, and they’re not buying five million dollar cottages.”
Steve took a final slurp of his coffee, then stood and shook MacDonald’s hand. “Do what you can. At least you have a chance to make some money out of this mess. I have none.” He turned and left the restaurant. The rain changed to snow as he headed north on Highway 169. The temperature plunged, creating icy conditions on the road surface. North west winds increased, driving the snow horizontally and decreasing visibility. The drive to the north end of Lake Joseph, normally a fifteen minute run, took over thirty minutes of slow and slower driving.
He skidded to a stop in the parking area of The Monster, jumped from his truck, and ran to the building. He unlocked the door, then hurried inside to take one last look at the vast and beautiful interior of the structure into which he had poured his heart and soul, and which would soon be taken from him. The elegant cottage was the culmination of his dream, the vehicle he planned to use to showcase his talents and to transition Monteith Homes from obscurity to respectability. After one final nostalgic look through the wall of windows facing south at an invisible Lake Joseph, he set the thermostat at ten degrees Celsius, carried his tools to his truck, and locked the door for the last time.
His ten kilometer drive south on Highway 69 was much slower and more nerve wracking than his drive north, almost one hour earlier. Snow squalls, driven by powerful north-west winds, almost completely obscured his visibility. Ice patches on the road surface forced him to pump his brakes to avoid fish-tailing. He flicked his left turn signal as he approached the T-intersection of Highways 69 and 169. He brought his truck to a dead stop and waited for a north bound car to pass, then eased his foot to the accelerator and began to turn his steering wheel counter clockwise.
It all happened in an instant, but to Steve it appeared to unfold in slow motion. All he could see emerging from the grey white blur to his left was the front of a large red truck, its huge chrome grill heading directly at him, its driver shouting soundlessly as he vainly attempted to avoid a collision. Attached to the large red Peterbilt cab was a flat-bed trailer, loaded with steel I-beams. Confused by the blinding snow, the driver had missed his opportunity to stop his truck before entering the intersection. His attempts to slow his truck caused it to skid and initiate a clockwise jack-knife of the trailer.
The collision was loud and violent. The large chrome plated front bumper of the Peterbilt struck the left front fender of Steve’s truck, compressing it like a paper bag. The momentum of the Peterbilt carried it and Steve’s truck across the southbound lane, its shoulder, and into a pile of large granite boulders. The right wheels of the green Ford hit the boulders with enough force to cause the vehicle to go airborne and flip. The Peterbilt’s trailer completed its jack-knife, rolled when it hit the rocks, and dumped its load of I-beams.
Steve’s life flashed through his brain in the seconds he and his truck flew in an inverted position. Everything went black when his truck landed on its roof.