We lived what most would consider a normal life right up until our house caught fire.
The house, you could say, was a gift from my husband’s deceased parents who left him enough money for a down payment. It was the kind of home you’d see listed as “a starter,” old and temperamental, but funky and close to the campus. For us, married less than one year, it was perfect. Patrick had just gotten a position as a research assistant in Hartford, I worked as a part-time registered nurse at UConn.
I got the call on a dry Sunday afternoon in early July. The day before, I’d taken the Amtrak up to Durham, New Hampshire, in an effort to ease my melodramatic brother through his impending divorce. Patrick was in Waitsfield, Vermont running in their annual marathon. A neighbor’s nine-year-old daughter had been the one who first smelled smoke. When I phoned the fire department, I was told to stay where I was, that even though the flames had been contained there were structural concerns and smoke damage. I was informed that no one would be allowed to enter until the property had been secured.
I finally got through to Patrick who joined me at Jon’s place later that night. The following morning, we contacted our insurance company, who promised to try to expedite things. They suggested a number of contractors who could begin restoration immediately, and Patrick hired the first one he called.
Fortunately, I was off for the summer. Unfortunately, my brother’s tiny apartment was hardly large enough to contain the three of us. By Tuesday morning, Patrick said, “I have to get a look at things,” and we both climbed into his car and headed south. We arrived around noon. The town had posted “No Trespassing” orders, and the police had taped off the entire house as if it were a crime scene. The smell of burnt wood stuck in my throat and made my already wet eyes water even more.
The contractor, a blond-haired Finn who struggled with the English language, had boarded up the broken windows and was in process of slinging a blue plastic tarp over a burned-out section of roof. When my husband asked him how long before we could move back, the man jutted out his chin and looked skyward.
“Maybe two, three weeks,” he said.
We drove back to New Hampshire in relative silence.
Over dinner, Jon began weeping, mumbled his soon-to-be ex-wife’s name, dropped his fork, and hurried from the dinette.
“We can’t stay here,” Patrick said.
“What should we do?”
Patrick said he could borrow some clothes from one of the guys at work. He’d call a co-worker named Liesel and ask about crashing on her couch. That part I wasn’t crazy about, but Patrick explained that she had a serious boyfriend and lived within walking distance of the office. I could have the car. He suggested I find an inexpensive motel closer to home.
My first thought was bedbugs. I told him I’d rather stay at the camp.
“The camp” was the other piece of Patrick’s inheritance, a place four hours north of the U.S. border where his parents would bring him for a couple of weeks every summer. His father and mother would hike the Ontario woods while he would sit out on their lakeside dock and listen to his Walkman. He loved that dock, he claimed. The only friend he had north of Riverdale.
I’d seen the place just once, a Saturday shortly after our wedding. We’d driven up, gotten out of the car, walked around the overgrown property, swatted at blackflies and mosquitoes and no-see-ums. There was a small cottage with an unattached garden shed on the side. I found the place rustic and challenging—I could have easily been persuaded to “rough it” for the night—but Patrick seemed melancholy and didn’t even want to go inside or visit the dock. Soon we were back in the car on our way to some local bed-and-breakfast. When we got back to Connecticut, Patrick put the camp on the market and had the realtor hire some “local” to check it from time-to-time.
At present, we had about $750 in cash, along with our passports, in a safety deposit box at the bank. The insurance company promised to supply a check for living expenses, but said it would take some time to process.
Patrick, even with his doubts, finally agreed that maybe it wasn’t a bad idea if I stayed at the camp. He called ahead to make sure the water was turned on and the lights were working, and that night I bought a road atlas and I traced my route straight up the New York Thruway, over the Thousand Islands bridge, and into rural Canada.
The cottage, which had been vacant for almost four years, was in better shape than I anticipated. The exterior was covered with cedar shake siding, unevenly bleached by the sun but otherwise undamaged. There was moss growing on the roof, but the shingles looked intact. The two wooden steps and small landing beneath the front door seemed solid. The property was still overgrown, yet someone—the caretaker, I guessed—had made an effort to keep the immediate area cut back.
The only glaring problem was a rain gutter that had apparently clogged and pulled away from the roofline. It didn’t take an engineer to know that if a hard rain fell, there’d be something resembling Victoria Falls cascading just beyond the doorway.
Inside, the floor plan was simple: a combination kitchenette/living area with a small bathroom downstairs, a rustic bedroom up. The furniture, protected by old, yellowing bedsheets, was musty but serviceable. Mice had made the place theirs; thousands of minute football shaped droppings littered the kitchen drawers, cabinets, and the tops of the refrigerator and old stove. The place was tiny, even considering the back porch—its screens now in tatters—that had been young Patrick’s sleeping area.
Patrick had given me most of the cash we had, keeping only “underwear money,” and claiming he was unafraid of bouncing a check or two. I’d been smart enough to buy cleaning supplies and some inexpensive bedding before I left the States, along with a ten-cup coffee maker, plush towels, and a couple of changes of clothing.
I concentrated on the bedroom. I wiped down the old dresser and polished the mirror, swept and sponge mopped the floor, swabbed out the tiny closet. I silently complimented myself for bringing along a couple of plastic mattress covers. I made up the bed, washed and opened the windows, dusted and turned on the ceiling fan.
The closest town, Abbots Bay, was five miles away. Its main street looked like a slice of 1960’s rural Americana, but it did have a fairly good-sized market, a liquor store, a bank, and several other businesses. I stocked up on stuff I would have never bought back home: white bread, bologna, sliced cheese, potato chips, cookies. I bought insect repellant and sunblock, dishwashing liquid and mousetraps.
At the camp, I drank coffee and stayed busy.
But the nights were quiet and dark, and even though he called me every evening to keep me informed, I missed my husband.
By Wednesday morning, with the cottage as clean and orderly as anyone could possibly get it, I decided to explore the garden shed.
Outside it was hot and humid, weather conditions I’d never associated with Canada. I’d passed a sign on the side of the highway as I’d driven up. It reminded motorists that they were crossing the 45th Parallel, “Halfway between the Equator and the North Pole.” Even in July, it made me shiver.
I opened the shed door and pretty much found what I expected: a few rusting tools, old cans of paint and solvents, boxes filled with broken clay flower pots, a square wire basket, two plastic chairs. But there was also a bicycle, slightly rusted with both tires deflated. I wondered if it had belonged to Patrick.
I took it out into the sun, flipped it upside down so that it was supported by the handlebars and the seat. I tried to hand-crank the pedals, but encountered resistance. Back in the cottage I retrieved a bottle of vegetable oil, returned to the bike, and drizzled some lubrication over the chain. This time when I turned the pedals, the back wheel reluctantly moved.
I heard the sound of tires on the gravel road leaving to the cottage and was excited to think that perhaps Patrick had decided to blow off work, rent a car, and surprise me. But the vehicle turned out to be a bruised, pitted-out pickup truck with a magnetic sign on the driver’s door that, along with a phone number, read:
GAGNE’S ODDS & ENDS
SEASONAL WORK WELCOME
There was an aluminum extension ladder protruding from the back, and when the truck stopped I saw a woman, dressed in a blue short-sleeve coverall and men’s work boots, step out and walk toward me. She was tall, probably close to six-foot, with oily shoulder-length hair. She moved with a pronounced limp. I guessed her to be in her forties, possibly younger. I doubted she was anyone’s idea of attractive.
“You belong up here?” she said.
“I’m the owner’s wife.”
She smiled at this, and I noticed she was missing a couple of side teeth. If she knew “a lady” was coming up, she said, she’d have made the place more presentable. I told her I’d thought the caretaker was a man, and she shook her head.
“Sorry to disappoint,” she said, “but since I’m out here, you mind if I take care of that rain gutter?”
I told her I didn’t, then watched as she dropped the truck’s tailgate and shouldered the ladder.
“Nice weather,” I said.
“Bet it gets cold in the winter, though.”
She slammed the tailgate with her free hand.
“Would you like a cup of coffee before you start?”
She paused, appeared to be considering her options, then said, “Let me get the ladder set up first.”
Her name was Genève Gagne, she smelled like wood shavings, and she drank her coffee black. I asked about family, and she told me her husband, Ray, drove “a pumper” for All-Star Septic. “Know how I met him?” she asked as she reached for an Oreo. “His brother broke into my trailer and tried to steal my TV. We met in court.”
How romantic, I thought.
I told her maybe I should give Ray a call since I didn’t know the last time we were serviced.
“Well you can call,” she said, “but you won’t get Ray. Ray’s home sick.”
“Nothing serious, I hope.”
She shrugged, then asked if I minded a personal question.
“Have you accepted the Lord God Jesus Christ as your only redemption?”
I admitted I wasn’t a very religious person.
“Well,” she said, “it’s not too late.”
Genève pushed back from the table, slapped the tops of her thighs, informed me that rain gutter wasn’t going to fix itself. When she stood up from the table, I heard her let out an audible whimper.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Fine,” she said. “Just got this toe thing.”
I walked around and pulled her chair back out. “Let me have a look,” I said. She hesitated until I informed her I was a registered nurse.
The big toe on her right foot was inflamed, the obvious result of an ingrown toenail. It wasn’t infected, but it was well on the way. I ran some hot water into a clean plastic bucket and had her put as much of her foot in as would fit.
“The boots used to belong to my old man,” she said. “He’s a size or two smaller.”
After fifteen minutes, I had her remove her foot and put it on a towel spread across my lap. I’d gotten my first aid kit from the car, removed some cotton and rolled it into a thin wick, gently tucked it underneath the nail, and applied some antibiotic cream.
“I want you to do this three more times today, and continue doing it until you’re back to normal.”
I told her it was no joke. That if she wasn’t better in a few days to see a doctor. I wrapped the largest Band-Aid I had around the swollen toe, and she started to grab for the worn gray tube sock she’d taken off. I stopped her. I told her to wait where she was, and I went up into the bedroom and grabbed my powder-blue, open-toed slippers.
“Wear these awhile,” I told her. “At least until you find shoes that fit.”
Genève removed her other boot and tube sock, put on the slippers, stood up and started out. Minutes later, as I cleared the table, I heard her hammering the rain gutter back into place. I put some of the cotton into a plastic grocery bag along with the tube of ointment and two Band-Aids.
My cellphone chirped.
It was Patrick. The fire department had scheduled a “walk-through” for the following day, and if things progressed as they were, we could be back in the house within a week or ten days. The news almost made me light-headed, but then I heard a woman laugh almost as if she were standing right next to the phone.
“Are you at work?”
“I’m at Liesel’s,” he said. “We’re going in a little late today.”
I fought back my jealousy; it was the last thing I needed up here alone. But when I got outside—first aid supplies in one hand and Genève’s boots and socks in the other—she was gone and so was the bike.
On Thursday morning I discovered a path behind the house. It zigzagged down through saplings and sticker bushes, and I found myself using tree branches as handholds to keep from falling. I’d gone maybe thirty yards when I saw water. A bit further and I stood at the lake’s rocky edge, a huge blue expanse in front of me, cottages dotting the opposite shoreline. The sight caused me to tremble as if I were the first explorer to ever happen upon this sight.
I recognized the remnants of a dock, four pairs of graying wooden pilings sticking up from the water like gigantic dowels driven into the earth. There were scraps of what I supposed was the old surface still attached, as if some giant foot had come down hard.
When I scrambled back up, I saw Genève taking the bicycle out of her truck. She’d had the tires inflated and the frame had been sanded down and painted a phosphorescent green. She wore the same coverall as the day before, and her feet were covered with relatively clean white socks and a pair of loose-fitting black Crocs.
“I called for you,” she said, “but I figured you was out.”
“How’s that toe?”
She told me she’d been “following orders.” I thanked her for fixing up the bike and she said to consider it payment for services rendered.
“Try ‘er out,” she said. “But be careful. Paint’s still tacky.”
I hadn’t ridden since who-knows-when, but I got on the bicycle and managed to do a couple of wobbly circles around her pick-up. The whole thing made me feel like a girl again, performing in front of some judgmental adult. When I stopped, Genève took my slippers—which now looked ready for the trash—from the cab of the truck and handed them to me.
We stood like that a moment.
“Well,” she said, “don’t let me keep you.”
We stared at one another.
“You have time for coffee?” I finally asked.
She didn’t say anything. Just slammed the truck door and followed me inside.
In answer to my questions, Genève told me Ray was “still resting,” and that she already knew about the lake path.
“That’s Kamaniskeg down there,” she said. “Seventy-two hundred acres of water, up to a hundred-and-thirty feet deep. There’s an old sternwheeler called The Mayflower sitting on the bottom since 1912.” She leaned forward as if to confide. “A few of the old-timers even think there’s a lake monster. Keggie, they call it.”
“What do you think?”
Genève sat up and pondered the question as if she’d never given it much thought.
“Well,” she said, “I imagine there’s something down there. But I like to think of it as good rather than evil. Like the Lord just waiting for the proper time to surface and call His flock together.”
I decided to change the topic and brought up the old dock.
“Most likely, the ice got to it.” She blew across the lip of her mug. “I could rebuild ‘er if you want.”
“Don’t you have work?” I asked.
“Little bit,” she said. “But with the summer folks up, the real work don’t start ‘til they leave.”
A rebuilt dock, it occurred to me, would surprise and delight Patrick. It might even encourage him to reclaim this place.
“I couldn’t pay you much.”
She shrugged. “Cost you materials and labor. Give me a hand and I’ll cut that labor cost in half.”
I asked how long it would take.
“Two days,” she said. “And that’s if we dog it.”
The Home Center took my credit card information over the phone, and Genève picked up everything we needed the following morning. She instructed me to wear clothes I didn’t mind getting wet, which for me were the ones I drove up in: plaid shorts, maroon t-shirt, white tennis sneakers. I noticed, though, that she wore the exact outfit she’d been wearing, minus the socks.
Genève couldn’t get the truck close to the lake, so we carried everything—decking, eye-bolts, tools—down by hand. Genève sliced through the underbrush like a bear, while I struggled to keep up. It was exhausting and took half the day, but by noon we were ready to start. I felt somewhat useless around this woman, able simply to hand her what she needed and hold anything she asked me to, but I made us a passable lunch and by 3 o’clock we’d constructed a couple of 8-by-10 foot frames.
“Ready to get wet?” Genève asked as she unzipped her coverall.
She was totally naked underneath, her body hard-looking and almost shapeless. Ruddy pink skin sprouting black body hair. I tried not to gawk, tried not to act like some freshman in a high school gym shower room. She’d brought along a pair of high rubber waders and slipped them over her Crocs.
“Gotta keep that toe dry,” she said.
Knee-to-mid-thigh-deep in the lake, we were able to remove the old shards of wood, and lift the frames, composed of something called “composite,” into place. By the time we’d positioned and secured them to the pilings, it was close to five. We returned to the cottage, Genève carrying her still-dry coverall, and I changed in the bedroom while she toweled off and got dressed downstairs.
“I’d ask you to stay for dinner,” I said, “but I imagine you have to get home.”
“I can stay,” she said.
“What about your husband?”
She assured me that a night away from one another was probably “just what the doctor ordered.”
“Do you need to call?” I asked.
“Nah,” she said. “He’ll catch on.”
We drove into town where I bought a cheap outdoor grill, some charcoal, two strip steaks, a few ears of corn, and a bunch of stuff for a big salad. Genève picked up an apple crumble, but refused to let me pay for it. Her contribution, she insisted. At the liquor store across the street, I found a couple of reasonably priced bottles of South African Shiraz.
Back at the cottage, we feasted. We took dessert and the remaining half-bottle of wine out on the back porch, mosquitoes be damned. I grabbed the plastic chairs from the garden shed and wiped them clean while Genève pulled the truck up as close as she could, left the passenger side door open, and popped in a Johnny Winter CD. We broke off chunks of the apple crumble and ate them over napkins spread across our laps.
“So what’s with your old man?” she said, her mouth almost full.
“What do you mean?"
“You hardly ever mention him.”
My “old man” is fine, I wanted to say. I suspect my “old man” is being taken care of quite well.
Instead, I changed the subject.
“Tell me about Ray,” I said.
“Not much to tell.”
“How long has he been sick?”
“Ray doesn’t take to doctors. Says he’s willing to let the good Lord do what needs to be done.”
I told her I was no doctor (and certainly not “the good Lord”) but I’d be happy to look in on him if she’d like.
She drained her wine glass just as Johnny Winter went into “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo.” “I love this song,” she said standing, then grabbed me by the hand and yanked me to my feet.
She started, and I hesitated at first, but soon we were dancing together without touching, like girls at a sleepover in somebody’s finished basement.
It wasn’t difficult to attach the wire basket to the handlebars of the bike, and that’s what I did early Saturday morning. I rode into Abbots Bay, picked up a few things I really didn’t need, found an inexpensive bottle of Ontario “champagne” and a couple of plastic champagne flutes.
Genève drove in around ten, joyful and anxious to get working. We spent all day laboring in the sun, and by four that afternoon we’d screwed in the last plank. I helped Genève lug her tools back to the truck, then asked her if she minded grabbing the two plastic beach chairs from the porch and putting them on the dock.
In the cottage, I popped the champagne and stuck it in a bucket of ice, the same bucket Genève had soaked her foot in. I picked up my tote bag and the plastic flutes and started for the dock.
When I got there, Genève had set up the chairs facing the water. She was seated, her back to me, and I couldn’t help but notice the broadness of her shoulders, the thinness of the hair on the crown of her head. I walked to her side, handed her one of the plastic glasses, filled them both and offered a toast to Kamaniskeg, our host.
I sat and we drank. “So,” I said. “How much do I owe you?”
She asked me if one-fifty was okay. I reached inside the tote bag for my wallet. One-fifty was more than okay; I could even pay her in cash.
Genève folded the bills, put them in the breast pocket of her coverall, zipped it shut.
“So what’s our next project?” she said.
“I don’t know. I’ll have to give you a call.”
“We could screen that porch up there. Do it in under a day.”
I started to tell her that I’d already exceeded whatever budget I may have had, that my husband would likely freak when he saw the Visa bill, when I noticed Genève squint and lean forward in her chair.
“What was that?” she said, putting her glass down.
“What? I didn’t see anything.”
Genève stood and walked to the edge of the dock, shaded her eyes with one hand, and pointed toward the middle of the lake with the other.
“You can see it from here,” she said. “Praise be to God, it’s huge!”
I got up and walked over. Genève’s right hand went from shading her eyes to wrapping around my waist as she continued to point.
“See it now?”
And before I could say that I saw nothing, her lips pressed on mine in this rough, clumsy kiss. I pulled my head back, Ontario champagne sloshing onto the dock, as surprised as if some sea creature just surfaced in my bathtub.
“Genève, what are you doing?”
“I’m kidding with you,” she said.
“That didn’t feel like kidding.”
“Okay. Sorry. Bad joke.”
I told her to forget it, but she kept apologizing.
“I should get going,” she finally said, backing away. “Promised Ray I’d be home early.”
“You don’t want to finish your champagne?”
“I’m good.” She waved a finger in front of her lips. “You probably want to go and wash that off,” she said. “I know I would.” And with that she turned, walked away from the water, and started up the path.
When I called, she stopped and faced me.
“Hey,” I said. “Let’s do it. Let’s screen that porch in tomorrow.”
“God forgive me,” she said, then turned and hurried off.
The next day, Sunday, it rained. Genève never showed up, but I attributed it to both the weather and the Sabbath.
Monday morning was brilliant and fresh-smelling, and I was awakened by a knock around 7:30.
Genève, I thought.
I put on my robe and went downstairs, found a uniformed police officer outside my door. The side of his face was scabbed-over as if he’d been dragged along the ground, face down. He politely asked if I minded answering a few questions, and I invited him inside. After refusing my offer of coffee, he took a seat across from me at the table and opened a computer tablet.
Genève had been reported missing. Apparently, some of the townspeople had seen us together.
I told him I had helped her rebuild the dock.
When was the last time I saw her? Did she say anything unusual or act in a suspicious manner? Did I have any idea where she might be?
After ten or fifteen minutes he stood, apparently satisfied with my unhelpful answers. At the door I asked him if Ray was being looked after.
He studied me with what I thought was distrust.
“Genève has no husband,” he said. “Never has. Genève lives with her mother.”
I stared at him.
“If she mentioned Ray,” he said, “she was likely talking about her father.”
He was out the door and back in his cruiser before I could say, Oh. I must have misunderstood.
No one saw or heard from Genève during my remaining time there. The weekly paper, The Sand Dollar, ran a front-page picture of her truck which was found on the opposite side of the lake. Below the fold was a second picture, a woman as shriveled as a neglected ground apple propped up on what appeared to be a foldout sofa. When told of her daughter’s disappearance, the old woman—according to the news story—said, “Good riddance to her. A devil’s child, that one.”
The camp sold to a man from Quebec the following year. Patrick and I—falling rapidly out of love—went up for the property closing.
Genève had become a legend around Abbots Bay. Some said she went further north and joined a monastic group of monks around Moosonee. Others claimed she hitchhiked down to the Mexican border and became a prostitute.
And one old-timer, the man who owned The Blueberry Diner in town, claimed that while fishing he actually saw her—“happy as Larry”—riding on the back of Keggie like a rodeo star.
Z.Z. Boone is the author of Off Somewhere, a 2015 finalist for the INDIFAB Award for Short Stories. His fiction has appeared in Bird's Thumb, New Ohio Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, The MacGuffin, and other terrific places. Z.Z. lives in Connecticut where he teaches at Western Connecticut State University.