CLAIRE HADN'T MEANT TO VENTURE SO FAR FROM HER HOUSE. With each step, she picked up her foot, craning her neck in search of the smiley-face imprint her new rubber boots were supposed to brand in the snow. But all was steely gray and melting that morning, and one step followed another, and the game swallowed whole her sense of direction. She trudged on through the weighty fog, determined to outlast the dim, flattening light. Neither the haunting screech of vultures, nor the stillness of the pine forest broke her reverie. At last, she looked up to discover she had arrived at the one place forbidden to her: Spoon Lake.
Claire had often daydreamed what Spoon Lake was like in the wintertime. In summer, it was populated with local, Maine day campers, splashing and playing marco polo, and bass fisherman, and teenagers out in paddle boats, smooching, as her mother called it. But this was February, and the lake’s surface was frozen, and dead still. Why, she wondered, doesn’t anybody come here to skate, or ice fish? Then she remembered; her Mom had told her the fire road to Spoon Lake was closed during the winter months.
Claire watched the fog sweep across the lake in huge, billowing waves until all she could see was a crescent of dark muddied shoreline. The dreamy rhythm of lapping water lured her closer. Some object, rigid and thick, was protruding out of the water; at first unrecognizable, awkward, unnatural. Claire inched forward. Through the mist she detected a plaid flannel shirt sleeve, and then… a man’s hand, grotesquely contracted and knobby, the fingernail beds a dusty black, and ridged in deep vertical lines.
She wasn’t afraid; she had been waiting for him, and calmly considered her options. Telling her mom wasn’t one of them. She needed someone who could keep a secret, and more importantly, help her dislodge the ice, freeing up the body so she could bring him home. She had to bring him home. In the nearby wood she found a hefty stick, and with little effort, piled rocks around the base. Then, removing the lavender ribbons from her braids, she tethered his hand to the stick.
“Stay here,” she said. “I need to get help.” Before leaving, she removed her red hooded coat, and hung it on the stick.
Derek Milner was shoveling his Mom’s driveway when he saw Claire walking across Farmer Seward’s blueberry fields. The fog had lifted, and it was snowing gigantic, lofty flakes so large he felt each one sting his cheeks, ruddy and burning from his labors. He noticed that she wasn’t wearing a coat, and her auburn hair, usually neatly braided was falling in loose strands across her face. She seemed to be heading straight for him which would make it only the second time they had ever confronted each another. Derek corrected himself; he saw her every day on the school bus, but they had never exchanged more than a ‘hey’ even though they were new neighbors. He thought she was a third grader, but being unsure, decided it didn’t much matter. Like himself, she was a loner child; her Dad was gone, shipped to Iraq for a third tour. No way he was coming back. He envied her, for it would be better for your Dad to come home in a body bag than to have one like his who leaves, comes back to beat the crap out of you.
Claire had progressed almost to the driveway’s curb. To his surprise, he felt protective of her, and started to take off his coat to warm her up, but he stopped himself. No respectable eighth grader would be caught dead giving a nine year old his coat, so he continued to shovel, pretending he hadn’t seen her coming.
“Hi,” she said. “What are you doing?”
“There’s another nor’easter coming, and my Mom’s freaked about not getting to work. Not exactly what I’d choose on my first day of Christmas vacation. Aren’t you cold?”
Ignoring his question, Claire looked to see if anyone was around. “Can you help me with something?”
“Help you with what? I’m sorta busy,” Derek replied, trying to look uninterested.
“There’s something in the lake I need to get out, and I can’t do it by myself. It’s a secret.”
“It won’t be a secret if you tell me,” he pointed out.
“I know,” Claire confessed. “It’s a problem, but I don’t have a choice. I can’t get him out.”
“Can you just come?” she pressed. “I need to get back home soon, or my Mom’s going to wonder where I am, and then everything will be spoiled.”
“I’m not supposed to leave while my Mom’s at work,” he said.
“How will she know?”
Derek liked this little neighbor of his. She was smart. Maybe he could hang out with her just for the morning. Besides, none of his classmates lived within ten miles; they’d never know.
“Here, put on my coat; I’ll run, and get another.” He threw his shovel against the snow bank and disappeared inside.
Claire waited, sticking her tongue out to catch the nickel-sized snowflakes parachuting from the sky. Derek returned in an oversized, black and red checkered lumber jacket, tattered and worn at the cuffs. On his head, he wore a matching hunt cap with the ear flaps pulled down. “You’ll need gloves,” Claire said. “Ones that can get wet, and bring the shovel, too.”
In the mounting snow, they trekked across Farmer Seward’s blueberry fields, and through the hundred-acre wood towards Spoon Lake. They did not talk, yet Derek’s interest was piqued. Although he was only thirteen, he read the Spoonville Gazette cover to cover every day. He knew who worked in the paper mill with his Mom and who didn’t; who was involved with local politics, attended the town meetings, and who just wrote letters to the editor. He read the paper because it made him popular at school to know all the grown-up stuff. Most critically, he memorized the crime report so next time his Dad gets paroled, he’d be better prepared.
The silence gave him time to think. He knew whose body it was. It was Jeb Wallace. Everyone in Hancock County knew about the murder, but no one ever expected to see the body again after the police reported he’d likely been dumped in Spoon Lake. It wasn’t the deepest lake in Maine for nothing! Besides which, everybody said Jeb Wallace was a philandering son-of-a-bitch, and he got what he deserved. Why bring more aggravation to the town than necessary? And why further embarrass poor Mrs. Wallace? She was one of the few teachers whom he liked, admired even.
“Claire, wait,” he called out, catching up with her. “We don’t need to tell anyone, right?”
She stopped, and faced him squarely. “We can’t.”
The shielding forest behind them, Claire was the first to recognize her red coat through the serpentines of swirling snow. “There,” she pointed, taking off in a run. At first, all Derek could see was a coat hanging on a stick, and wondered if he’d been duped.
She waited for him to catch up, then removed the coat, exposing the tethered arm.
“Jesus Christ!” he cussed.
“We need to get him on shore,” Claire said, untying her ribbons. “Give me the shovel.”
“Claire, wait!” Derek managed. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to break the ice, and then we’re going to pull my Dad on shore. Then, we’re going to cover him with snow, and build an altar for him.”
“An altar? This isn’t your Dad!” he gasped. “It’s Jeb Wallace!”
“Not to me,” she responded, grabbing the shovel from his hand.
For a minute or so, stunned into silence, Derek watched her chip away at the ice.
Suddenly, he understood what she was doing. “I want him to be my Dad, too,” he said.
Claire smiled. “Then we’ll share him.”
That night Derek laid awake, staring at the constellations, trying to drown the image of Jeb Wallace’s decomposed, bloated corpse, revealed inch by inch as they broke through his icy coffin. Initially, the body lay prone, making it possible not to look, to pretend he was just one of Farmer Seward’s stuffed scarecrows, blown into the lake. But once buoyant, and hauled ashore, and they had rolled him over, it was Derek, not Claire, who’d vomited on the beach. All the cheek flesh had been eaten, by God knows what, leaving the facial bones fully exposed. The tongue was shredded like striated crabmeat. One eyeball was missing. But it got worse; whoever killed Jeb Wallace made sure that, dead or alive, he would never again commit adultery.
“Don’t look,” Claire advised, coolly. “Let’s cover him with snow like a burial mound, and remember… it’s not him; it’s your Dad.”
Derek would have preferred to leave him exposed to the coyotes, but he hadn’t said so.
Gazing at Orion, he wondered how Claire could be so cold-hearted. Or maybe he was wrong; maybe it was different for her. She seemed nice enough; she had comforted him when he’d lost his breakfast. What was it, then, that motivated her to participate in this gruesome fantasy? He thought he knew; if her Dad is already dead, she wouldn’t have to face each and every day waiting for the news that he’d been killed in a suicide bombing. No one survived three tours in Baghdad. This way she could nurture him, protect him, and not have to face the reality that her father would rather fight a nameless enemy than be at home with his little girl. There was no draft; what else was she to think? The critical difference between them, Derek decided, was that Claire loved her father, while he loathed his. And he was beginning to loathe his mother who insisted they visit the bastard in the Thomaston Correctional Facility every Sunday. He refused to go, which made matters worse, but he wouldn’t pretend. There must be some honor in that. Honor is really what this is about, Derek concluded. Claire was honoring her father in death, while he was honoring his right not to be pummeled senseless the next time his Dad gets out of jail.
He liked Claire. Maybe for the Christmas holiday, he could pretend she was his little sister. The thought pleased him, and he drifted off the sleep.
They had planned to meet at two o’clock the following afternoon. In her backpack, Claire had stuffed a box of her mom’s votive candles, twelve in all, one pine cone, and the Purple Heart her father had earned on his last tour. She purposely arrived early. Over the heart, she laid the medal of valor. The pine cone she placed approximately where she thought his severed genital would be. This bothered her the most. She needed her Dad to be able to make a little brother or sister and was sure that whatever lay between his legs made it happen. Last, starting at the top of the burial mound, she arranged the candles in the shape of a cross.
“Jesus came back, Dad. So can you,” she intoned.
Derek, quiet as a fox, stood, watching. “He can’t come back like that, Claire. Once you’re dead; you’re dead.”
“Who says? Did you bring the lighter?”
He laid down the shovel he’d brought back, dug in his coat pocket, and pulled out a box of matches. “It’s all I could find. My mom doesn’t smoke.”
“You’d better light them,” Claire said. “I’m not allowed to.”
He lowered himself to his knees, and lit the twelve votives to the metronomic drip of melting snow. Two turkey vultures soared over head, swooping closer. Time was running out. “Claire, look–” Derek pointed skyward, “you can’t stop them; they’re predators, and they’re hungry. It’s warming outside. We’ve got to stop clowning around.”
Claire looked at him as if he were mad. “Why?”
“Because eventually the snow’s going to melt, and he’ll be exposed, and…”
“Nonsense,” she mimicked her mother. “That’s simply nonsense. Let’s pray.”
“Wait,” she said. “I’m not finished.”
“CLAIRE,” he shouted. “Knock it off!”
“Will you let me handle this? If you do,” he coaxed, “I promise you that your Dad won’t be hurt, but we need to get him out of here, or the vultures and coyotes will devour him.”
“He’s your Dad, too,” she reminded him.
“I know; I’m doing this for both of us.”
Reluctantly, Claire surrendered. “What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to take your Dad’s stuff, go home, and not come back.”
“What are you going to do with him? If you call the cops, I’ll tell on you,” she threatened.
“And what will you tell them?” he laughed. “That I came to your house, and asked you to help me drag a dead body out of the lake?”
Claire considered his point. Derek was older, and probably knew best, but she didn’t trust him. “Maybe I should stay and help.”
“No,” he said. “It will be getting dark soon, and you should get home. Besides…” he added, gently squeezing her arm, “I don’t want you getting into trouble. Your dad wouldn’t want that either, now would he?”
With that, Claire blew out the candles, and watched their thin, smoky trails dissipate in the breeze. The Purple Heart she placed carefully in its navy blue, silk-lined case, and into her backpack.
Derek watched Claire walk home, lifting her feet as she looked for the smiley- face her new rubber boots were supposed to imprint in the snow. When she was out of sight, he began in earnest to scrape the hardened crust off the burial mound with the edge of his shovel. Several times, the stench of decay caused him to swallow the bile in his throat, prolonging the task. Several times he had to avoid looking at the vacant eye socket. Pressing, the vultures hovered so close he could hear the din of their feathers quiver in readiness. He would oblige them, he thought to himself, as fast as he could.
And in the moonlit silence of his bedroom, Derek lay awake, listening to the coyote’s primeval howl as they ran across Farmer Seward’s blueberry fields, through the hundred-acre wood to the melting shores of Spoon Lake.