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       Strange Tales for Cozy Nights 1, p.1

           Brian Bakos
 
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Strange Tales for Cozy Nights 1
STRANGE TALES

  FOR COZY NIGHTS – 1

  by Brian Bakos

  cover: Othoniel Ortiz photos: Brian Bakos

  Copyright 2017, Brian Bakos

  Table of Contents

  Thing in the Lake

  Voyage

  The Man Who Loved Winter

  Haunted Woods Excursion

  Healer

  Bear Country

  The White River Terror

  Personnel Enhancement Service

  Rifle King

  Connect with the Author

  Brian’s Other Books

  Thing in the Lake

  The Lake it is said, never gives up her dead ... The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

  1. The thing finds me

  Something bumps against the bow, jarring me out of my contemplations.

  “What the hell?” I say with disgust.

  I’ve been drifting slowly through the darkness, and my canoe barely shudders from the impact, yet I am angered by the affront. I drop to my knees in the center of the boat and switch on my flashlight, expecting to discover a small log or a beer cooler floating in the water. You never know what some drunk will lose over the edge of a party barge.

  I ready my paddle to shove aside whatever the obstruction might be. I am not prepared for what I find.

  “Ahhh!”

  I tumble back along the floor; the narrow canoe rocks dangerously, threatening to capsize. Fear immobilizes me as I sprawl like a baby inside a galloping cradle, staring at the moon as it tries to stab its light through the cloud cover.

  God help me!

  But God is nowhere around in the funereal night. It’s just me, alone and unprotected.

  The canoe ceases its dangerous pitching. The thing in the water scrapes along the fiberglass hull with the scratching hands of death; I dare not look upon it again. Reaching from my position on the floor, I turn on the electric motor which is clamped to the stern. Thank God, it obeys my summons.

  I grip the drive handle and bring the canoe gently around. Somewhere in the far regions of the lake, a loon begins its insane shrieking.

  My craft bears me away though the darkness. Twisting my head around from my prone position, I can see the patio light drawing closer. I resume my place on the seat and open the motor to full speed, not looking back to see if the horror pursues, unconcerned about any obstructions ahead.

  When I get to dry land, I leap ashore – that much I recall. The next thing I remember is standing in the shower under a hot blast of water, with no idea of how I got there – my clothes are piled on the bathroom floor.

  I collapse into bed.

  ***

  When I awake, it’s still dark. The clock is lying face down on the carpet where I must have knocked it, though I have no recollection of doing that. Jodie is not in bed with me, but I did not expect her. I roll onto my back.

  Did any of this really happen? I wonder.

  A second, more disturbing thought occurs: Am I still out on the lake, and is this comfortable bedroom only an illusion?

  Something has gone crazy with the world; I have no idea what or who. Things have come unstuck. And so I remain, suspended between two uncertain realities, until well after day break.

  Then I drag myself out of bed and go downstairs to the kitchen. I pop open one of those wine coolers that Jodie is so fond of; there’s a six-pack of them in the fridge. They represent the sole blemish in her otherwise impeccable taste.

  I dislike the faux fruit flavor, but it’s the only alcohol in the house. I slug it down quick, then open another one. I head out the sliding glass doors, across the patio, and down to the lake.

  The neighboring houses are distant and are probably empty as well. Mid week interlopers like myself are relatively uncommon in this gentrified part of the shoreline.

  My motorized canoe sits innocently on the shore, pulled up into its customary place. Impossible to tell when it was last used – maybe some hours ago, maybe last week. I give it a complete walk around. Everything seems in order . . .

  That little smear alongside the port hull – was it there before?

  I can’t say. It’s a mystery beyond solution, at least for now. I slug down half the wine cooler and gaze out over the vast lake. In other countries, this would be called a ‘sea,’ but here in Michigan, it’s just one of several massive lakes gouged out by glaciers and augmented by dams.

  I’ve been coming here my whole life, year round, since Mom & Dad owned the place, when it was still just a ‘cottage.’ Back before the second floor got built and Jodie’s designer furnishings took over.

  Carried off by the huge body of water, my mind returns to a winter day a quarter century ago when I was 12. The lake had frozen through with surprising clarity, and there was little by way of snow cover on the surface. This side of the Lower Peninsula is like that – the western side gets the lake effect snow, but the winds are pretty dried out by the time they reach us.

  You could look a fair ways down into the frozen water, and that’s where I saw it, in good detail. No one else could see it though, especially not my friend, Rex, who proclaimed his studied opinion that I’d “gone wacko.” But I knew what I saw, and everyone else knew it too, eventually.

  I return to the house and make a call, using the landline. My cell phone is for my other life downstate.

  2. Struggle to comprehend

  I push open the glass front door of the Kawfee Cup café and enter; the waitress looks up from pouring coffee and smiles my direction. Rex is waiting for me in a booth near the back where we can have some privacy. Good. A few other locals are scattered around the tables and counter, nobody I know. Rex is the only local I associate with.

  “Man, you look like crap!” is the first thing out of his mouth when he sees me.

  “Thanks,” I say.

  I’ve known Rex a long time. We had many adventures together as boys, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. He’s a good guy, if not on the educational and professional level that I have attained. When I come up here for a break, he’s part of the shedding process – I ditch my more developed, complicated self to take on the simpler aspect of this small town.

  “So, what’s the big deal?” Rex inquires.

  The waitress arrives before I can tell him what the ‘big deal’ is. I order a coffee and the mini-breakfast; it’s about all I can deal with in my addled state. The waitress is very nice, and I hope I haven’t been too blunt with her. I don’t want to come across as some insensitive jerk from downstate.

  Rex is a blunt guy, too; that’s another reason I like him. He seems devoid of the political hackery and double talk I must deal with in the working world, back home in the bustling city. He’s not one to stick a knife in anybody’s back, especially not a pal’s.

  So, I get directly to the point, after a bit of preliminary: “Remember when we were kids, and I saw that car in the lake ice? You said I was crazy.”

  Rex grins, good-natured though a bit apprehensive.

  “Yeah,” he says, “how could I forget? ‘Old Ben’s gone off his rocker,’ I told myself.”

  “But I was right, as subsequent events proved.”

  Rex nods, but he doesn’t say anything right off.

  “I’ll grant you that,” he finally says with a tip of his coffee cup.

  I’m not sure how to continue. The waitress temporarily takes me off the hook by bringing my mini breakfast. I dig in, hoping to gain some time for collecting my thoughts.

  I discover that I’m actually famished and regret not ordering something more substantial. Rex has a calming effect on me – that’s another reason I like him, and the waitress’ friendly attitude also gives me some grounding. My num
bed sensibilities are beginning to thaw.

  Rex has turned reflective. This is the point where he’d yank a cigarette out of that checked shirt pocket of his and light up, if such things were still allowed in restaurants.

  “That was quite a day, all right,” he says.

  I wait for him to say more, but it is not forthcoming.

  Well, you can only expect so much from a hick, I think uncharitably.

  I take a drink of coffee before continuing, holding the warm mug in my hands like a comfort blanket. Then I place it down decisively.

  “Something similar happened last night,” I say.

  Rex’s eyes flash and he gulps hard. His face turns grim.

  “Really?”

  “Yeah,” I say, “on the lake. I took my boat out on a ‘loony cruise’ as you call it. I saw something in the water.”

  I pick up the mug for another slurp of coffee, wishing that it was a powerful cocktail, instead.

  “What was it, man?” Rex asks in a virtual whisper.

  “A body.”

  I’m surprised at the calmness in my voice. The color drains from Rex’s face.

  “Did you tell the sheriff?”

  I shake my head. “No need for that.”

  “No need?” Rex says. “If there’s a body in the water, the sheriff’s gotta know! I mean, this ain’t Lake Superior – it’s gonna wash up somewhere.”

  Rex’s voice has gotten louder. He glances around and lowers it again.

  “Do you know who it was?” he asks.

  I nod.

  “Who?” Rex’s voice is nearly inaudible now.

  “It was me,” I say.

  Time hangs suspended in the little restaurant. Rex looks like he’s been slugged in the gut.

  “More coffee?” the waitress asks.

  “Please,” I say, “and more for my friend, too.”

  She smiles warmly at me, but pretty much ignores Rex. He could be having a coronary and she probably wouldn’t notice. Rex is only the familiar truck hauler / handy man, while I’m the exotic ‘rich guy’ from down south taking a break from the cocktail circuit to slum with the locals.

  The fact that I can think in such terms attests to the relaxation of tension I have experienced. My more ‘sophisticated,’ or at least cynical self is reemerging. It really does help to get things off your chest – especially when it’s a vision of yourself floating dead in the water, glassy eyes staring into a flashlight beam.

  The waitress tops up our coffee and leaves, swaying her hips more than necessary. She’s clearly trying to attract my attention – the big city ‘success story’ with the power to take her out of this isolated fragment of the world. She’s very cute, maybe a year or two out of high school, and life must be looking rather dead end-ish here.

  Rex has recovered a bit from his shock.

  “Hey, don’t do that to me, man,” he says. “I mean, a joke’s a joke – ”

  “This isn’t a joke,” I say. “Not any more than that car was.”

  “Damn,” Rex says. “Damn ... ”

  He’s got the most peculiar look on his face. He’s staring at me like I’m a ghost. I can’t resist the temptation of reaching across the table and gripping his forearm. He jerks back; I grin wickedly.

  “Did you tell Jodie?” he asks.

  I shake my head. “She’s back home now. Our schedules don’t match this week.”

  “Right ... right,” Rex says.

  A vacuum descends on the conversation. I take a final slug of coffee.

  “Well, it was good talking to you, pal,” I say. “I figured you’d be as likely to understand as anyone. Sorry if you’re upset.”

  “No, it’s all right,” Rex says.

  For a moment all the social strata b. s. falls away. I’m suddenly fed up with what and who I am, with the people I place value upon. I see Rex as the true friend that he is, unvarnished but real. He seems almost an object of pity now, sitting there baffled, shrunken to less that his usual size.

  I stand and drop a fat tip for the waitress onto the table.

  “I’ve got some stuff to think over,” I say. “Thanks for listening to me.”

  “Right ... ” Rex says again.

  I pay our bill at the register.

  “Come back soon,” the waitress says as she hands me the change.

  I check out her name tag.

  “Sure thing, Carla,” I say.

  I can feel her eyes on me as I head for the door. Sure enough, when I get there, I see her watching me in the glass. Our eyes meet for an instant within the reflection, then I’m outside walking to my BMW.

  I look back toward the restaurant and catch a glimpse of Rex still sitting at the table, his head bowed over his cup of coffee like he’s saying a prayer. Carla’s obvious interest has given me a lift. I’m not in the market for a girlfriend, though. The womanizing thing is in the past – been there, done that. I’ve got the real deal now, and would never do anything to spoil it.
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