The wind blew, the trees danced, the purple-orange if sunset was starting to give way to a polished pewter. It frightened me how much the night air felt exactly the same as it had eight years ago, the last time I'd ventured near these hallowed grounds.
I wondered if Griffin Scope's people would think to keep an eye on Lake Charmaine. It didn't matter really. Elizabeth was too clever for that. I mentioned earlier that there used to be a summer camp here before Grandpa purchased the property. Elizabeth's clue - Dolphin - was the name of a cabin, the one where the oldest kids had slept, the one deepest in the woods, the one we rarely dared to visit.
The rental car climbed what had once been the camp's service entrance, though it barely existed anymore. From the main road you couldn't make it out, the high grass hiding it like the entrance to the Batcave. We still kept a chain across it, just in case, with a sign that read No Trespassing. The chain and sign were both still there, but the years of neglect showed. I stopped the car, unhooked the chain, wrapped it around the tree.
I slid back into the driver's seat and headed up to the old camp mess hall. Little of it remained. You could still see the rusted, overturned remnants of what had once been ovens and stoves. Some pots and pans littered the ground, but most had been buried over the years. I got out and smelled the sweet of the green. I tried not to think about my father, but in the clearing, when I was able to look down at the lake, at the way the moon's silver sparkled on the crisp surface, I heard the old ghost again and wondered, this time, if it wasn't crying out for revenge.
I hiked up the path, though that, too, was pretty much nonexistent. Odd that Elizabeth would pick here to meet. I mentioned before that she never liked to play in the ruins of the old summer camp. Linda and I, on the other hand, would marvel when we stumbled over sleeping bags or freshly emptied tin cans, wondering what sort of drifter had left them behind and if, maybe, the drifter was still nearby. Elizabeth, far smarter than either of us, didn't care for that game. Strange places and uncertainty scared her.
It took ten minutes to get there. The cabin was in remarkably good shape. The ceiling and walls were all still standing, though the wooden steps leading to the door were little more than splinters. The Dolphin sign was still there, hanging vertically on one nail. Vines and moss and a melange of vegetation I couldn't name had not been dissuaded by the structure; they burrowed in, surrounded it, slithered through holes and windows, consumed the cabin so that it now looked like a natural part of the landscape.
"You're back," a voice said, startling me.
A male voice.
I reacted without thought. I jumped to the side, fell on the ground, rolled, pulled out the Glock, and took aim. The man merely put his hands up in the air. I looked at him, keeping the Glock on him. He was not what I expected. His thick beard looked like a robin's nest after a crow attack. His hair was long and matted. His clothes were tattered camouflage. For a moment, I thought I was back in the city, faced with another homeless panhandler. But the bearings weren't right. The man stood straight and steady. He looked me dead in the eye.
"Who the hell are you?" I said.
"It's been a long time, David."
"I don't know you."
"Not really, no. But I know you." He gestured with his head toward the bunk behind me. "You and your sister. I used to watch you play up here."
"I don't understand."
He smiled. His teeth, all there, were blindingly white against the beard. "I'm the Boogeyman."
In the distance, I heard a family of geese squawk as they glided to a landing on the lake's surface. "What do you want?" I asked.
"Not a damn thing," he said, still smiling. "Can I put my hands down?"
I nodded. He dropped his hands. I lowered my weapon but kept it at the ready. I thought about what he'd said and asked, "How long have you been hiding up here?"
"On and off for" - he seemed to be doing some kind of calculation with his fingers - "thirty years." He grinned at the dumbstruck expression on my face. "Yeah, I've watched you since you were this high." He put his hand at knee level. "Saw you grow up and - " He paused. "Been a long time since you been up here, David."
"Who are you?"
"My name is Jeremiah Renway," he said.
I couldn't place the name.
"I've been hiding from the law."
"So why are you showing yourself now?"
He shrugged. "Guess I'm glad to see you."
"How do you know I won't tell the authorities on you?"
"I figure you owe me one."
"I saved your life."
I felt the ground beneath me shift. "What?"
"Who do you think pulled you out of the water?" he asked.
I was dumbstruck.
"Who do you think dragged you into the house? Who do you think called the ambulance?"
My mouth opened, but no words came out.
"And" - his smile spread - "who do you think dug up those bodies so someone would find them?"
It took me a while to find my voice. "Why?" I managed to ask.
"Can't say for sure," he said. "See, I did something bad a long time ago. Guess I thought this was a chance at redemption or something."
"You mean you saw...?"
"Everything," Renway finished for me. "I saw them grab your missus. I saw them hit you with the bat. I saw them promise to pull you out if she told them where something was. I saw your missus hand them a key. I saw them laugh and force her into the car while you stayed underwater."
I swallowed. "Did you see them get shot?"
Renway smiled again. "We've chatted long enough, son. She's waiting for you now."
"I don't understand."
"She's waiting for you," he repeated, turning away from me. "By the tree." Without warning, he sprinted into the woods, darting through the brush like a deer. I stood there and watched him vanish in the thicket.
I ran then. Branches whipped my face. I didn't care. My legs begged me to let up. I paid them no heed. My lungs protested. I told them to toughen up. When I finally made the right at the semi-phallic rock and rounded the path's corner, the tree was still there. I moved closer and felt my eyes start to well up.
Our carved initials - E.P. + D.B. - had darkened with age. So, too, had the thirteen lines we had carved out. I stared for a moment, and then I reached out and tentatively touched the grooves. Not of the initials. Not of the thirteen lines. My fingers traced down the eight fresh lines, still white and still sticky from sap.
Then I heard her say, "I know you think it's goofy."
My heart exploded. I turned behind me. And there she was.
I couldn't move. I couldn't speak. I just stared at her face. That beautiful face. And those eyes. I felt as though I were falling, plummeting down a dark shaft. Her face was thinner, her Yankee cheekbones more pronounced, and I don't think I had ever seen anything so perfect in all my life.
I reminded myself of the teasing dreams then - the nocturnal moments of escape when I would hold her in my arms and stroke her face and all the while feel myself being pulled away, knowing even as I had been bathing in the bliss that it was not real, that soon I'd be flung back into the waking world. The fear that this might be more of the same engulfed me, crushing the wind out of my lungs.
Elizabeth seemed to read what I was thinking and nodded as if to say "Yeah, this is real." She took a tentative step toward me. I could barely breathe, but I managed to shake my head and point at the carved lines and say, "I think it's romantic."
She muffled a sob with her hand and sprinted toward me. I opened my arms and she jumped in. I held her. I held her as tight as I could. My eyes squeezed shut. I smelled the lilac and cinnamon in her hair. She buried her face into my chest and sobbed. We gripped and regripped She still... fit. The contours, the grooves of our bodies needed no adjusting. I cupped the back of her head. Her hair was shorter, but the texture hadn't changed. I could feel her shaking and I'm sure she could feel the same emanating from me.
Our first kiss was exquisite and familiar and frighteningly desperate, two people who'd finally reached the surface after misjudging the depth of the water. The years began to melt away, winter giving way to spring. So many emotions ricocheted through me. I didn't sort through them or try to figure them out. I just let it all happen.
She lifted her head and looked into my eyes and I couldn't move. "I'm sorry," she said, and I thought my heart would shatter all over again.
I held her. I held her, and I wondered if I would ever risk letting her go. "Just don't leave me again," I said.
"Promise," she said.
We kept the embrace. I pressed against the wonder of her skin. I touched the muscles in her back. I kissed the swan neck. I even looked up to the heavens as I just held on. How? I wondered. How could this not be another cruel joke? How could she still be alive and back with me?
I didn't care. I just wanted it to be real. I wanted it to last.
But even as I held her against me, the sound of the cell phone, like something from my teasing dreams, started pulling me away. For a moment, I debated not answering it, but with all that had happened, that wasn't really an option. Loved ones had been left lying in our wake. We couldn't just abandon them. We both knew that. Still keeping one arm around Elizabeth - I'd be damned if I was ever going to let her go - I put the phone to my ear and said hello.
It was Tyrese. And as he spoke, I could feel it all start to slip away.