This town has been hanging in the store window too long. It’s faded. It’s yellowed. And it’s exactly how you remember it. The only things young hands built are the roads that the county had redone three years ago. You remember remarking to your dad over Easter dinner how bright the construction pylons and road signs were against everything else. As if anyone in a place as small as Rib Lake could miss them otherwise.
You hadn’t been back since that meal and wondered if you’d still recognize your mother by her hairdo. Your dad you could pick out anywhere, just by the way he stood in place. The chevrons on the highway disappear under your used SUV’s hood and it’s hard to stay awake at the end of the hours long drive from Atlanta.
What’s keeping your eyes open is the pair of airplane socks resting on the other side of the dashboard. The drive North up into Taylor County Wisconsin is grey and green, but on your finance’s black socks are patterns of airplanes in red, yellow and blue. Her sense of style is fun and unique – the socks paired with cat eye sunglasses but embarrassing you both by wearing an ironic Georgia Tech sweatshirt they had handed out at graduation. All things you didn’t find here where you grew up. She slides her feet down and lifts her sunglasses to the top of her head, clearing the curls from in front of her eyes, all to see more of the local IGA and bowling alley, which were still hosted in repurposed barns and farmhouses; capitalist chameleons hoping to go unnoticed.
“I love this” she says, “I want to buy a ranch and just, like, live here forever and eat hotdogs.”
You chuckle, knowing she is half teasing but also trying to make you feel like she’s having fun.
“I’m going to literally kill you, Sophie” you say, teasing back but she’s still glued to the main street scenery.
Rib Lake only has one gas station and you pull into it. You park at the pump and put one foot out of the door, straight into a rainbowed puddle. A chill runs up the sole of your foot to your ankle and up your leg as the water seeps into your shoe. It reminds you of walking home from school in the winter and of the slush that would turn brown as the cars drove by. The pinks and blues swirl around your shoe in a pond of scum until you pull it out and shake it off.
“You OK?,” Sophie says, noticing your accident. You curse to yourself and tell her you’ll be a minute.
At the pump you can see promotional stickers worn off the metal and stains along the station walls that are as brown and splotchy as the rim of an overflowed coffee cup. The sight matches the air, a mix of unleaded gasoline, soil and cut wood.
You zone out, transfixed on an 80’s menthol cigarette ad in the station window when your view gets obscured. A brown truck with a white cap on the back pulls up on the opposite pump. The muffler of the old truck rattles intensely before it’s put to sleep and you can see through a small window in the cap that it’s full of landscaping tools like snowblowers, mowers, fuel and extension cords. The body of the truck, chocolate colored by design, is coated by a layer of light brown dust, like it were dropped not long enough in the deep fryer. A man just a bit taller but much thicker than you steps down from the truck’s cab and into a similar multicolored irritation as you. However, he’s prepared for what this town holds. His boots are thick and high and he’s dressed in camoflauged insulated overalls on top of a warm knit sweater. The man’s face was large and round with rosy cheeks and an equally hued nose. A blonde scraggly bears covers his chin and neck but the rest of his head is tucked tightly underneath a Milwaukee Brewers toque. You nod politely as you finish with your pump and head off inside the station to pay.
The inside of the station is stocked and much more modern than you would have thought from looking at it. Waiting behind a woman paying for rolling papers and scratchers, you start to hear Sophie’s voice at the high pitch it reaches when she gets excited. This is how she defines herself – chatty. Amongst a group of strangers at a party or squeezed in an elevator, Soph could not resist a conversation. But this was the nature of things. It was just that nature that brought her to introduce herself to you freshman year. Same when you kissed for the first time. As well as her near stream-of-consciousness level exposition during the first week after you proposed to her. She told you everything she thought, every conversation she had. That was an exhausting time but four months had passed and she had returned to her regularly gabby ways. But you had asked her not to talk to everyone she met here. Not everyone is worth knowing here.
The door chime rings in your ear as you walk back out to the car.
“Don’t you recognize him?” Sophie yells in your direction. She’s now sitting with her knees on the driver’s seat and her head out the window, flailing her arms out at you.
The man in camo looks at you. His eyes trace your clothes and then your hands and then your SUV. His chapped lips rub against each other and his brow furrows as he tried to piece together Sophie’s riddle. Finally he looks at your face for the final clue. But he wants a further inspection and moves his boots toe to toe with yours, like a dog that needs a scent. You stare off to the side, not wanting to make eye contact but you can feel his breath on the tip of your nose.
In an instant you’re off your feet. Your lungs squeezed of each element of oxygen in the process. You try to protect yourself but only your wrists are responding, helpless.
“Oooooooweeee,” he screams in your ear like a pig as your neck tosses your head from one side to the other, “Hell yeah, no matter how long it’s been I recognize you yet!”
Your feet hit the ground and scuffle to find their bearings as he puts you down after a final pump of the hug, “Chad, I didn’t see you under the beard,” you say.
“What this old thing?” says Chad. You had not heard a Wisconsin accent in years. It seemed worlds away from the firework phrases they turned in Atlanta, “You back home for a stretch?”
“Just visiting,” you say. The silence is stuck in the cold air like a hanging icicle until Sophie shatters it.
“I’m here to meet the parents. We’re getting married,” she says in an exaggerated nonchalant manner that she’d practiced over the weeks. You put your hand out to her as a way of thanking for reminding you and turn to Chad nodding.
“I never heard that,” he says matter of factly. He’s not looking at Sophie at all even though she’s is slipping her engagement ring hand further out the window toward him. Chad looks at you without a flicker of excitement but more waiting for an explanation.
Feeling nervous to say something you blurt out, “We didn’t want to make a big deal.”
Chad scratches his head hard with his toque and then itches his neck so hard it traces white marks across the skin.
“I hear ya, I hear ya, brother. Good to see you,” Chad says and gets straight into his truck and backs out. In five seconds he’s out of sight.
Soph climbs back to her seat and you lower yourself into the drivers.
“He was pissssssed,” she says.
“That’s just how they are here.”
“No, that’s how you are here. You recognize him but you walked right past him. Then you’re standing right in front of him and you didn’t say hi. I’d be pissed”
“He and I weren’t buddies. I didn’t have close friends when I lived here. I did my own thing.”
“And apparently no one knows we’re engaged. Your parents know right? I’m not walking into your house and your mom will be like, introduce us to your friend?”
“No, they know you.”
“He was offended because you didn’t invite him to the wedding right there.”
“I’m not inviting him to the wedding.”
“We should have done a formal Instagram announcement so everyone at least knows.”
You shake your head and pull the car back out onto the road and head north.
“What about him makes you think he’s on Instagram?” you ask wryly.
Sophie rolls her eyes at you, “Everyone’s on it,” she murmurs out the window.
Reader boards with messages of sales and offers litter the sides of the streets in front of businesses that could only wish to have as many customers fill their parking lot as words did their signs. But the scene begins to change from Main Street to forest as you continue along the north-running highway to your parent’s house. You speed past a turn-off labeled by a beautifully carved wooden banner sign calling out The Rib Lake Lumber Mill.
Down that road you can see the four story building whose perfect craftsmanship shifts the surrounding forest to a different time in history. Each wall, beam, and post was carved from meticulously chosen fir logs that had been treated to glow as golden and smooth as a strand of lace. But the property was more elegant than to have only an impressive façade. You know the details – the stairs laid in tamarack along with the handrails; the ornate backdoors carved by a woodsman outside of Taylor County from two solid cuts of ash log. It was where every dollar could be followed back to for the last hundred years for at least thirty miles.
“Is that it?” Sophie asks. You nod.
“It’s a museum now. It’s not going to be open while we’re here. It’s only open in the summer.”
“Well, it’s yours I’m sure we can sneak in.”
Not three minutes go by before you switch your indicator on and make a right into your parents driveway. The estate covers a quarter mile in from the highway before you get to the main house. That drive surrounds you on both sides by lush, well maintained trees and brush. Scattered on the lawn are wooden statues as well as plaques or varying sizes. The smallest being the stump of a fully grown hemlock tree embedded with a tablet of gratitude from Marinette County, Wisconsin for a donation to help preserve their city park and waterfronts; the largest being a fifty-foot totem pole from the Chequamegon Northwoods association in 1909 for your family’s work to cooperate timber sales for the past generation. You were always attracted to the stylistic face of an alligator on the pole; beaming red eyes and nostrils with green skin.
The road continues on to the right, where the guest house stood wholly unimpressive as a one bedroom shack with a wobbly screen door; and then to the left, the main house. It was a gaudy construct, large enough for eight bedrooms across two floors with a lovely backyard. You could drive for hours without seeing another one half the size. You pull up in front of the stairs that lead to a wraparound porch and, eventually, the main doors.
You get out and start to mosey towards the trunk. You’ll unpack, say hi, probably some small talk with your parents and make Sophie feel comfortable and then have to roll them over to the guest house. Your mother has been looking forward to meeting Sophie ever since you started talking about her. Your father on the other hand has been referred to in the past as a prick. He doesn’t tell dad-jokes. He doesn’t watch football or play pool. He also doesn’t talk about much other than real estate and money. You think he has it in his head that if he talks about these things enough, you might become interested. You shake your head as you rummage through your pocket for keys to open the trunk, just thinking of what non-sense he may say to Sophie.
For almost three years you’ve kept her away from them. When you were younger they would encourage you to meet new people your age from the county. They would introduce you and you would wander off to play by yourself. In your teens your father became the one who was much more hands on. He was in the mindset that he could arrange a marriage for you. He would invite a whole family over for dinner, explaining that they had a wonderful farm or that they owned a distribution facility in central Wisconsin. Throughout those years you always had a date, a car and played on a team but your mother and father could see that you didn’t commit to either of them.
One night, when you came in the door from school, you told them both you liked someone you’d met while traveling on the baseball team. He was furious that of everyone he’d introduced you to; you were keen on an outsider. His voice boomed so forcefully that your body froze. Your backpack slid right from your shoulder, down your arm and crashed to the floor. He didn’t let up; insisting you were ungrateful for all that this town had given you and that you would put the family in such a position. You caught your mother’s gaze for just a brief second. She was standing behind the banister of the staircase, removed and protected from the conversation. She didn’t step in.
You weren’t allowed to use the internet for a month or talk on the phone without their permission. It seemed like something you ought to rebel against, however, you found other things to do. Sophie was a different story. When you told your mom about her, she sounded happy. Your father didn’t talk about her much but didn’t push back. And when you told them that you had proposed, they were both relieved - possibly exhausted from trying to find you the right person close to home.
The trunk pops and starts to glide towards the sky as you round the side of the car.
“I’m so happy to meet you guys!” you hear Sophie’s muffled voice exclaim.
You look to the porch and realize her speech sounded smothered because it is buried in your father’s lapel. Sophie is standing between your mother – whose smile is wide and sunny, so heartened by the aura Sophie is giving off – and your father, and she has an arm around both their necks. You expect your dad to turn to you with a stoic, deliberately blank look. But he has his arm around her as quick as can be and is truly beaming.
“I see you’ve met,” you say.
But you’re presence is no longer required. Sophie is asking your dad about the property which prompts a tour and your mother marvels at Sophie’s hair, saying she’s always been jealous of curly haired women as she feels a lock between her fingers. You shrug with a smirk on your face and start to unload the car by yourself.
[[Chapter Three]] Chapter Three
“Your dad was,” Sophie scrambles for a word that best suited him, “I like him,” she decides on with a content grin. The both of you are changing into sweats in the guest house after a coffee, a chat, a snack, some reminiscing, dinner and then a glass of wine. You don’t think it could have gone any better and that removed the grip of anxiousness from around your stomach.
“They must have been on their best behavior,” you say.
“No, I’m adorable.”
You grab Sophie and kiss her hard.
“They won’t miss the wedding will they? I really want them to be there. You don’t think they’d miss it, right?” she says, slipping her bra off underneath her softball-team pajama shirt.
“They don’t leave Wisconsin much. But they’ll be there. If not you and I will starve to death.”
“I hope you’re not marrying me for the money?”
“Maybe you’re marrying me for the money?” you say, fiddling with your suitcase, wondering where the hell you put your blue socks.
“I didn’t even know you had a trust fund until six weeks ago”
“How else does anyone in America pay for school?” you ask.
“Uhh, work hard?” Sophie says as she dumps whatever remains in her suitcase in the top drawer of the dresser and sorts it out.
“I don’t think we’d starve.”
“Let’s not find out,” you say, “We’ll get married. I’ll get the payment from my trust for going to school and getting hitched. Pay off our school loans. Buy a Prius and a huge dog and then put these degrees to work,” you tell her and toss your jeans to the side with your foot to put on your sweatpants.
“Don’t blow all that Prius money. We still have a wedding to plan for next spring.”
“I think we’ll be able to swing it.”
“I’ve never asked and you’ve never told but, and not that it matters, and you don’t have to tell me, and I don’t care. But how much do you think it is?” she asks, embarrassed and stops rolling her suitcase into the closet to hear your answer.
You flop on the bed and wrack your brain, “I think it’s three million.”
“That’s it?,” she says, “Wedding’s off.”
“No!” you dramatically yell and raise your open palm to the ceiling in mock despair.
Sophie pulls open the closet door to stuff her suitcase in there and finds the space bursting with boxes and old knick knacks stacked on top of one another. Each box is labeled with a year in black sharpie and underneath is a name or a place. Her silence gets your attention and you get up to stand beside her as she rifles through old pictures, broken lamps and rusted tools.
“All going to the mill,” you say, “Part of the town’s heritage displays.”
Sophie holds a picture close to her nose. The frame is tarnished and the print is creased but you can make out the scenery sure enough. The area of the mill you drove by earlier in the day.
“This doesn’t look the same,” she says.
“It’s been restored. There was a fire at the old one. My great-granddad hired the whole town to rebuild it after he took over,” you say, sleep now casting a spell across your mind, “Come on.”
You wander, eyes half closed back to bed, knowing that tomorrow will be a day filled with more parental stories, possible embarrassments and likely a trip into town where you’ll stumble across another frustrated high school alumni if you were to bet on it.
[[Chapter Four]] Chapter Four
The morning is not what you expected; in a good way. Your parents aren’t intrusive or humiliating. Instead they show more interest in you and Sophie. They ask how you met and where you eat and what your plans are for the future. After lunch the hours slow and your mom goes in for a nap while Sophie watches TV in the living room.
You find yourself in your dad’s study. The room is traditional and reflects on him intelligence when he sits in one of the overstuffed leather chairs. But the truth is that all of these books on the shelves that cling like bad wallpaper to the room were gifted. Anything your father actually reads is sitting on the kitchen table or is stashed in the bathroom. But you’ve sat in here once or twice when the lighting was nice and the house was quiet to read. You slide your hand across the rows until you get to a beautifully designed spine that reads Crystal Meadows. You lift it from the shelf and begin to read to pass the time. It tells the story of a young girl caught between the man she loves and her son during the Second World War. The clock ticks to nearly five before you hear your mother startle the pots and pans in the kitchen. Your dad ambles past the door to the study and you call out to him from slouched behind your hardcover, “Are we going out today?”
He doesn’t seem at all inclined to leave now and dismisses it without any thought, continuing down the hall, “Better for us. I didn’t want to run into anyone else. Sophie would end up inviting half the town to the wedding.”
You hear his footsteps stop and track back while you ease back into your chair and trace over your paragraph. When you look back up, he’s leaning in the doorway, his arms crossed in front of his stripe golf shirt and his padded slipper tapping against the floor.
He looks down at you with a furrowed brow and shakes his head as he asks questions like who did you see? What did you tell them? What did they say to you?
You rest the book open on your chest “It was nothing really. Chad from school. We barely recognized each other.”
But the questions must have raised an alarm with your mother as well. She’s now standing beside him, one eye on you, one eye on the kitchen. She has her own set of questions she’s volleying to your father like a late-night detective show – What did Chad say? Who was he with? What did he say to Sophie?
Annoyed from the string of questions falling from seemingly nowhere like a sun shower, you get up and throw your book on the chair, “It’s fine. Jesus,” you say as you storm by them.
You immediately take a breath and recognize your own regression into a teenager and slow your stride, but still lock yourself in the upstairs bathroom where you can’t be disturbed for the next fifteen minutes.
Typically your mom prepares dinners for the family every night. Potatoes, rice, salad, a prok chop, sausage rolls, some fish, chicken wings, meatballs, pasta salad then dessert followed by snacks. Any or all of these could be on the table at once. Rarely does she like to order in or skimp on effort so you roll your two baby potatoes around your Veggie Panini with complete confusion at dinner.
Your parent’s have been quiet since you made such a fuss in the study and you feel bad that it’s your immaturity that’s causing the dinner to suffer. More concerning is that Sophie has been trying to strike up a lively conversation but is getting nowhere with them and she doesn’t do well with silence and the indoors.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to, whatever, like, take off on you guys. I just don’t know what the big deal was all about,” you say to the table. Your dad doesn’t even flinch and your mom looks up with a smile.
“But you can ask me anything you want. Go ahead, I’ll let you know whatever you need to know if it’s a big deal to you,” you say. Again you don’t get a reaction from your father but your mom clears her throat and begins to speak into her plate as if it had been the one seeking attention.
She suggests, gently but politely, that maybe this visit wasn’t a great idea. And although it was a pleasure to see you and meet Sophie, that you should think about taking off early to beat the traffic.
“What?” you say as your fork clatters against the side of your plate.
You see Sophie take her napkin from her lap and press it against her face to hide the start of a sob and wipe her tears. Your mom looks up from the plate with red eyes herself and tells Sophie that she’s sorry, calls her dear, reaching her hand to her across the table.
You stand up to move over to Sophie and begin to put together what you’re going to say to your parents when a knock rattles the front door.
Everyone is still for a moment, trying to pick out sounds from the front of the house. You can hear engines idling, feet shuffling on the porch, some faint music and voices. Not just a few but many.
Your dad bolts up out of his seat with a glare that motivates you to follow. You look to Sophie, “Stay here, it’s OK,” then kiss her on the cheek. Your mom gets up but is torn between rubbing Sophie’s shoulders to calm her shattered nerves and scrutinizing the action at the front door so she stays near your poor fiancée but strains her neck over her to see. You dart behind your dad in the hall headed toward the main door. The knock comes again but this time you’re closer, it’s louder and it seems to vibrate the bones of the house like hitting a brick wall with a baseball bat. Your dad swings open the door and you stand side by side.
“Congratulations, it’s your engagement party,” Chad stands at the door with his hands in his pockets. He speaks to you but his eyes are locked with your dad’s. Chad’s stature looms over him so they are not eye to eye, instead Chad’s gaze presses down on him like gravity. A woman standing on the porch beside him, no older than twenty-two with a blue solo cup in her hand raises it with a cheer. And with that, the cheer of almost three trucks full of locals follows that is loud enough to echo off the trees. Chad’s party rages in full view with three pickup trucks parked out front, their lights still on and radio all tuned to the same station. In the beds of the trucks sit four or five young men and women with arms around each other and their voices raising incrementally over each other’s and the music until it turns into a screaming match ending in laughter. They were all in good spirits but you notice each of them, not all at once and not all so obvious, would look to you out of the corner of their eye.
“Well? Go on get your jacket there,” Chad says behind a smile that swiftly disappears behind frosted glass as your dad slams the door inches from his face.
You can hear some of the guys from the trucks hop out and their rapid footsteps strike the stairs on their way up to the porch.
You can hear Chad calming them and then hushed tones. With that the steps disperse – some around the right side and some around the left side of the house, “Hey, what’s wrong, it was supposed to be a surprise for ya. I brought the guys from school. Haven’t seen you in a while,” Chad continues, so unmistakably enjoying the tension like an adrenaline junkie feeling their lungs adapt to the fear.
Your father grabs your bicep and tells you sternly not to go out there no matter what they say.
“What are you talking about?” you ask but zone out the answer, your focus instead is on listening to the footsteps continue around the house, towards the kitchen.
“We didn’t get an invite to the weddin’,” Chad says through the door, “That ain’t right. And your daddy, mister big money, knows that ain’t right now. At least let us take you out for a tailgate. It’s tradition.”
You rip your arm out of your dad’s grasp as he trys to tell you to stay put. Your imagination starts to play games with your emotions – you see this going further, the drunks at the kitchen window, Chad raging against the door with his fist so hard it splints the wood, Sophie frantic and in danger. You turn and grab your coat off the hook in the foyer and face your dad while you throw it on.
“I fucking hate this place,” you say under your breath, every reason you left Rib Lake flooding back to you – your parents erratic shit, the town that won’t give you an inch to yourself, the destiny that each person you ever knew now has the smell of beer stained against their tongue. You point into the kitchen where your mom peers towards you with Sophie standing, crying against her shoulder, “Get her packed. When I get back, we’re leaving.”
You swing open the front door and Chad is standing right where you left him, “OK, let’s party,” you look up at him with your empty hand outreached, “Do I get a drink?” you ask.
Chad’s chapped lips crack like lightening across his smile, “Hell ya!, Let’s move on!” he cries out.
Chad is still looking to your dad so you close the door quickly behind you and ask again for a drink. Three guys come around from the side of the house. Your fears ease when you look at them; they’re just kids and they’re drunk, they don’t have more sinister motives. One of the boys sitting in the truck tosses a still cold bottle through the air and into Chad’s hand. He twists it off and hands it to you then tells you you’re riding with him.
The scenery goes by but the last inch of the sun peeks behind the tree line as you ride with Chad in his pickup followed by the others in the rearview. The inside of his cab is filthy, not by way of his laziness, but incidentally. Mud tracks along the footwells with leaves and twigs.
You drink down your beer and remember how many times you took this drive in your teens. There is no club district in Taylor County so bachelor and bachelorette parties are held in the forest by the warmth of a burn barrel.
“I hope we didn’t give your folks a scare,” Chad says and you can hear sincerity in his voice.
“Nah,” you say.
“Me and the guys were talkin’. Last time you were out for one of these was Steve Tutt’s before he married Joanne?” Chad says.
“That’s right,” you say.
“Steve’s in the other truck. He can give you some advice on bangin’ the white bitch tonight,”
You shake your head and try to seem as laid back as possible, “That’s OK, you guys can handle the girls tonight,” but then you recall what he’s talking about. The White Witch, a story from before your time, of a woman who wandered the woods spooking cattle and gauging the eyeballs of mischievous teens. Decades later it meant jealous women would sneak the unwed into the woods to give them a taste of what they’ll be missing after they tie the knot. It became a rite of passage -- If you didn’t answer the white witch’s call in the bushes, your marriage would be bound to fail.
“That’s bad luck. Steve and Joanne are together now for five years, don’t ya know it,” he says.
“Plenty of people didn’t do it,” you remind him.
“Ya,” he turns to you solemnly, taking his eyes off the road and giving you a blank stare, “And they’re all dead now.”
The gravel road jostles the cab from side to side, the sound of rocks showering in your wake like hail pelting against your mind aggravates you and makes you think you should have listened to your father.
“No, fuck no! Everybody’s fine,” Chad laughs, his mouth wide showing off the gaps in his front teeth, “But it’s fun. And you’ve always been wound pretty tight. It’ll be good for you.”
It isn’t long until you are watching the flames reach relentlessly towards the sky. Bon fires in Rib Lake were nothing akin to campfires. The site is a twenty minute walk in from where you park the trucks. The brush gathered to start them is as tall as your waist and once it was lit inside a caged metal barrel, the fire roars like a raging giant of eight or nine feet. There isn’t much for seating. A few landfill escapee lawn chairs and stools, but you sit low with your knees above your elbows on a decaying log.
You can count twenty people now, maybe more. But the world is small here where only firelight could touch. Like a painting with no boarders, once you look away from the party, you look to the solid blackness of the woods. The drunken attendees wish you well and give whatever tiny, polished advice they can on marriage as they sip their cups. Some barely recognize you but it was no matter, their nostalgia is so pickled by cheap brandy and wine that it lost balance on the way to your ear. You know they’ll forget you again in the morning. The drinks flow along with the stories, cigarettes, accents and weed.
In an hour everyone is warm in the wits and crushed under the towering orange glow of the blaze. To make matters worse, you’ve accepted the drinks and the smoke from those who offered and it blurs time and faces alike. The fire heats the skin of your eyelids when you close them, but behind, facing the icy nothingness, the back of your mind echoes that it’s time to go home to Sophie and put an end to the night without drawing attention to yourself.
Putting your hands quietly in your pockets you turn around and walk away from the fire. A man brushes by you, in his hand is a mangled log that he’s gathered from the brush to throw on the fire. The outside bark is cracked and split with a knot prominent at the back top end. The dwindled color makes it look as though he was carrying the head of a small elephant. As it turns in his arms the stump shows itself as the mouth of the creature. If this had once been alive and could still feel the harsh environment take its toll, it would be in anguish. The stump had been chewed away from the middle to the outer. Once solid and stable is now mossed and looks as though you could stir it. It would have given up screaming hours ago. The man dumps it in the fire and it knocks sparks from the other timbre as it chars slowly.
Another person bumps past you as your eyes fixate on the radiant heat of the kindling. You take a step back out of their way and turn to say sorry, but instead you see that they’ve gone into the trees and the only shape that the firelight reveals is in the form of a slender white dress soon shrouded by shadow and brush.
The rest of the party is absolutely unhinged with excitement. They squeal at you to follow, telling you to take a load off and have some fun and enjoy being home. Chad drags himself over on wobbled legs, his jaw so slacked it barely delivers his message, “You gotta do it.”
You try to bring your thoughts together but they are occupied in your head by drugs and booze and anxiety. You take a few things into consideration.
The stress has been mounting ever since you put your foot to the peddle and started the drive here. The only thing you have to head back to are your crazy parents and Sophie. They manipulate. They control. They lie. And now Sophie is involved. You made a rash choice based on fear and got caught up in the moment back at the house. You should not have left her. She’s going to be furious that you’ve been out of the house for hours and left her with your folks. Not a fun conversation.
This whole trip has been a mistake, but if you’re truthful, coming to the bonfire has been the only time you could relax. You decide one more drink couldn’t hurt. You’ll follow this townie into the forest and play their game. What you’ll do when you find her – you haven’t figured that out yet. You snatch the beer out of Chad’s hand and raise it above your head to a cacophony of cheers then head off into the darkness to see the White Witch, with true intentions of leaving right after this drink. Turn to [[Chapter Forty]]
You don’t need to be sober to make this decision. You’re sick of everyone telling you what to do – Sophie, your parents and especially these hicks. The only reason you agreed to come with them is that you thought they might be murders; you’re not going to buy into their simpleminded distractions and be friends. Not only that but you left Sophie when she needed you most just because you didn’t want to deal with your father’s nonsense. You need to find her and apologize.
This whole town is rotten to the core. You shake your head; you won’t be doing any of that. The party starts to boo you. You put your hands up in the air with a shrug, trying to be polite about declining. Chad is more drunk than you thought. He puts his arm around your neck like a chum but tightly, too tight for it to be a friendly suggestion. And tells you again that you have to do it. His accent thick and tripping over itself. But you scream back, your saliva like venom in his face when it sprays on towards him, “Fuck off!” Turn to [[Chapter Twenty]]
Between the crunching of dirt and the snapping of twigs, you look back to see the party still continues as long as the flames flicker but the noise is dim and the excitement that was once frenetic now seems insignificant. The smoke and drink soften a world of just two shades of shadows and a stripe of moonlight to a flattened blur not unlike a dirty mud puddle of a gas station.
“Hello there?” you call out, not expecting what to hear back.
Out of the corner of your eye you see a dash of white and lift your foot towards it and then the other. The woman wears a sundress. The short sleeves are laced with a pattern. It comes in slight at the waist and then down to knee height with the same gentle lace at the hem. Amazingly none of the stray branches trip you as you give chase. By the time you arrive at where you thought you saw her last, she’s gone. You realize this is turning into more hide and seek than anything else.
Like a rat in a maze, you keep running into dead ends and backtracking. You see her again, through the bushes, on the other side of the dead end. You yell out to her to wait for you although you can’t see her face, all you can make out is a flowing white dress. The bottom of this one floats just above the ground like a fog. Each inch of it looks creased as it stretches up her body. You finally get your footing enough to brace yourself against a large tree and slide down the bush. By the time you look up on the other side she’s nowhere to be found.
“Fuck this,” you whisper and turn back to the fire, brushing your hands of the dirty bark that stains them.
Then you see her again, strolling towards the fire. Closer to the light you can see her white dress much more clearly. The waist is very tight and the collar high. It’s heavy and long but the fabric shows complexity as it gathers more light. With a clear path now you take off towards her. Each step you take the embers burn out like you’re following the fire’s tail. And there is no noise to speak of other than the kindling pop. When you finally reach the burn bin, there’s barely enough heat to warm your palm as you show it to the fire. You weren’t dreaming - the litter of bottles, cigarette butts and plastic cups assures you.
Squaring your shoulders and strengthening your eyes to create the illusion of sobriety, you decide to get it together and go home. But there are whispers in the trees farthest from you.
“Pretty funny,” you yell out, “Chad, man, you put on a hell of a show but I’m heading.”
The whispers continue and again the woman in white appears, this time though, her dress tight and strapless as she leaps through the brush away from you. You don’t have the patience to play this time and sprint into the black after her. You arrive only to find that she’s even farther ahead, slowly walking south. You pick up your feet even speedier while trying to keep her in your sights. Without getting close, you lose her as you dodge a shallow pond. You look up again you hear another inaudible whisper farther south towards a clearing. Your legs pump and trample everything in their way until you burst through the other side of the tree line into three acres of open, manicured grassland.
In the distance is the woman, now in a white wedding dress that explodes in elegance as she marches gently forward. The wind catches it and tosses it around like a lone buoy in the open sea. Above her the sky is black with no stars to fill the night. She is heading onwards through the green towards your family’s mill on the other side of the property. As quick as you shuffle your feet, you can’t gain on her. The closer you get, the more clearly you can see lights dotting the windows of the mill. She gets to the building before you do and sneaks around the corner.
With about one hundred feet to go, your buzz is wearing off and you decide to investigate the light in hopes that you’ll find a landline to call for a ride. The back doors are heavy and tall. Typically they’re locked but you can see that one is open a crack and light is spilling from it onto the ground. You wrap your hands around the rough wood and pull back on the door with all your strength.
Make a different decision
Chad stares blankly at you. The whole party is silent, their necks wrenched towards you.
“Point me towards the cars,” you ask out loud, “I’m outta here. You get what I’m saying?”
No one moves or says a word but their eyes are anchored on you. With a murmured curse you begin to walk away, not caring where, just wanting to get out of here.
You hear dirt kicking up behind you and as you turn to see the commotion your eyes are jolted to the ground. Your head rattles and cracks like a piece of ice under a boot. You look down to see Chad around your waist and he lets out a primal grunt. After that you feel the pain. The swelling and splash damage your skin and muscle and bone suffers as Chad begins to thud his fists against your meat. His punches rail against your head and ribs as you clamor to cover up. Before you can catch your breath to ask for help the whole party has descended upon you, blotting out the light of the fire pit.
Everyone gets a kick or a punch in and it’s not the agony that paralyzes you, it’s the panic. You strain to hear what they are saying but the only thing you can distinguish is their dread and their rage and Chad’s panting. Your whole body throbs and you gasp for air so long you feel that it might never come. It crosses your mind that you might die here, with these people, over a ghost story. You begin to choke on blood and saliva that you can’t cough out.
You hear another commotion and lighter, fairer voices overtaking the cacophony of rage. You hear your first real piece of hope like a shining beckon that gives you faith to breath.
“Get off, you fucking idiots!” you hear a woman say.
You take your hand away from covering your bruised face and see three women in different white dresses breaking through the crowd and eventually to you. They get in the way of the kicks and punches for the most part by telling the men that surround you to fuck off. When the third lies beside you she yells to Chad to get his attention.
At this point he has punched himself to exhaustion and it is all he can do to lift himself off of you. You roll yourself on to your back with your head to the side, spitting out blood as it refills into your mouth. The women in white brush the dirt and blood from your face and ask if you’re OK but you can only mutter that you are. They help stand you up but you double over in pain, your abdomen feeling like it is wrapped in a red-hot iron cast.
Some of them men walk you backwards against a tree. You’re dazed but you scan the faces as they bicker amongst themselves. Some of the women you remember from school or Facebook. They’re all dressed up in whatever white dress they had in the closet with the intentions of coming out here and being the white witch for your party. The one closest to you is pretty. She’s wearing a white long sundress and has simple but flattering makeup on. The volume of the voices pulse like a radio station out of reach but you can catch some of what she’s yelling at Chad and the rest – apparently they were never supposed to hurt you, they were just supposed to get you drunk and get you past the clearing in the south to the mill.
“What the hell are we gonna do about our little surprise?” she asks out loud to the group.
The woman in the white sundress looks at you and then at Chad.
“Just don’t mess this up. Keep everyone under control especially our special guest. But no one needs to be kicking the shit out of anyone,” she barks at him and two other boys saddle up beside you – one of their hands pressed firmly but not forcefully against the middle of your chest.
A woman howls from the bushes and bursts towards the fire, “What’s goin’ on over here? You guys ever gonna call me?” she blurts, stumbling towards the flame, cigarette in mouth and wearing a full wedding dress, “You can’t just leave me out there, you know?” She makes her way to the edge of the crowd. You get a better look at her dress; it explodes in every direction with elegance. The gentle breeze catches it and tosses it like a buoy in the open sea as she trudges forward. Closer to the light you can see the frayed and soiled bottom.
“Holy moly, Lorie, settle down, we were coming to get you any minute now,” says the woman in the sundress.
Now everyone is in an uproar. Chad and the woman in the sundress doggedly argue over the next step of the scheme in such detail that you can’t decipher the meaning. Partygoers continue to drink and the men all crowd around one of the angry women in white. You put your head back lazily against the tree, catch your breath, and watch as Lorie, the woman in the wedding dress drops the lit cigarette from between her lips.
Silently another woman in white appears from the same bushes. She walks in a confident stride beside Lorie. Her dress is tight at the waist with but flows out past the hips. It sports a very high collar. It looks heavy and long though it collects no dust or twigs on the bottom, it’s pristine. You look closer and see the fabric shows complexity against the fire light and a large belt with an ornate buckle resting on her middle. You doubt that such a dress could be pulled out of a closet in this town. She wears her hair in a tight bun with not a single hair out of place to get in the way of her cold, steeled expression.
When a boy from the party, no older than eighteen offers to light the new smoke that Lorie replaces promptly between her teeth, she shoos him away and turns to the woman with the icy aura. She looks to be asking for something from her but the frigid woman is looking at her stoically, not getting involved. Eventually Lorie gets down on one knee and rummages through her stockings, pulling out a light and starting up her smoke.
Chad continues to argue his point while you strain your eyes and can see that the woman with the chilly demeanor is not only much older than everyone at the party, but she still hasn’t said a word to Lorie.
“Who is she?” you ask out loud but you’re shoved up against the tree harder by Chad’s pals.
Lorie says some choice words to the silent woman and, taking a deep inhale from her menthol, blows the smoke into her face. It must be a riot because Lorie can’t stop laughing. With each laugh more smoke pours from her mouth. Then more, thicker. Then more, darker. Lorie’s laughs have turned into hacking so quickly that no one bats an eye including the quiet woman.
You raise your arm and point towards them.
Lorie grips her knees, heavy black smoke pours from her mouth and nose. Tears run down her eyes when she looks up at the party and can’t get a word out.
Make a different decision
[[Chapter Five]]Chapter Forty-One
The voice of a radio DJ is the first thing to confuse your ears. Cigarette smoke gathers at the back of your throat. You peer inside with caution. Your face steels as you start to wonder what all this could possibly mean. Immediately, you recognize every person who was at your party, including Chad.
The room is splattered with photos, paintings and incased artifacts on the authentic log walls. The floor is covered in displays, showcasing clothes and any significant pieces of the town’s history. What catches your eye is the group of women in the back, sitting aside from the rest like a museum exhibit all to themselves, each wearing a different white dress. A flowing dress, a sundress, a tight dress. They sit cross-legged with a cigarette between their teeth listening to another woman tell a story; a woman in a wedding dress. She’s no more than twenty and has it folded carelessly in her lap. She’s sure to spill her drink on it as she waves the cup around to exaggerate her tale to the others. Other than the women, there are some new editions. Older men and women that you’ve seen in town pepper the crowd. But none of these newcomers carry a smile or a glass. Each time you eye them out from the group you find them staring at you in a heat worse than a stray. A large hand clasped against the back of your neck.
“Glad you made it,” Chad says genuinely.
“What is this?” you ask.
His grip tightens to the point he is no longer playfully walking with you but dragging you forward, his fingers dig into the flesh of your neck like a beast with its kill in its jaw.
“Don’t act stupid,” Chad says and rocks you with a punch to the gut, doubling you over. With you weak, he pushes you to your knees. His paws clamp around your neck from behind and force your head forward.
“Elias, you want us to leave?” Chad asks the man whose shoes he eventually presses your head against.
“No,” Elias says, in a graveled voice. Chad eases up and you lift your neck to look at this person who has hushed the crowd. Strings of grey hair drip from his thinning head, past his chest like candle wax, few and far between. His nose is bulbous but pale and overshadow his thin lips as he speaks. Wrinkles crack his face apart deeply as if it were glaciers drifting away from one another. You wrack your brain, but for all it’s worth – the sway this man clearly holds over your home town – you don’t recognize him, “You should all hear this,” he says.
With just those few words a path clears behind Elias and he steps aside. Behind him is Sophie, curled into a ball like an abandoned toddler, sobbing deeply in a large wooden chair. You call out to her and she turns and stands to get up but the woman in the white sundress puts a hand on her shoulder firmly.
“Are you hurt?” you scream out to her. She shakes her head.
“Tell him what I told you, Mrs. Logan,” he asks Sophie.
Sophie runs her wrist across her red-raw face to gather the tears but doesn’t say a word. You stare up at him blankly.
“Your dad didn’t tell you shit yet, has he?” Elias asks, “Your great grandpa built his fortune on the back of the people of Rib Lake. His son, your dad’s dad, married a woman from out of town that they’d never even heard of.”
You shake your head, “And?”
“Your dad is a piece of work. Chad, get one of those pictures down there.”
Chad follows orders swiftly as you watch him stomp off into a different room. Knocking and crashing, he comes out of the room with a yellowed, softened paper in his hand. Chad hands it to Elias who promptly stuffs it in your face.
The photo is of a young couple standing in front of the lumber mill back when it was active. The man is in his twenties wearing a thick, unbuttoned wool coat and large warm mittens. His dark slacks match the jacket although his high lace-up boots seem a shade darker in the worn picture. He has his arm around his wife, your great grandmother. In contrast to her husband’s smile, her face is cold and steeled. Her hair is up in a tight bun. Her dress flows out then wraps in at her hips, held together by a large, dark belt buckle, and then flows out again. Against the dark woods and hard labor in the background, her dress is a stunning, immaculate white.
Elias taps the photo, “Your great granny treated this town like her whipping boys. She would fire them, have them arrested, and ruin their businesses. She was a miserable woman. And we didn’t know her from nothing. Finally the town had enough. They told her they weren’t going to be treated like shit anymore. But she wasn’t having that. She said she’d axe ‘em all and bring in outsiders. So they locked her in the mill, and lit it up.”
You stare at the picture in disbelief.
“They weren’t gonna stop there. They were gonna put the flame to your house but then your family struck a deal. No one with your name can marry out of this town. Keeps you all honest. Keeps the town with some cash in its pocket.”
“We don’t want this fucking mill. We don’t want to be here,” you tell him.
“You’re as dumb as your daddy. No, no. No, no, no. That’s the problem. That’s the problem that we’re trying to tell you. She doesn’t want anything to do with Rib Lake - look at her,” Elias stands tall and gazes at Sophie. She squirms in her seat, the muscles in her arm tensed and ready for a fight.
“She’s got your the witch's spirit. She already don’t like us and it’s not even done the honeymoon yet.”
“What did you expect?” you ask.
“We can’t have the White Witch come back after all these years,” he says to nods and hushed agreement from the crowd, “No, see, your trust – your money -- is depending on this. Your great granddaddy put the family estate on the line to protect you all. If you don’t keep the family business – better, the family money -- in Rib Lake, it goes to Taylor County. You don’t get shit.”
“You can’t do that,” you say.
“I didn’t do a damn thing. The arrangement was inked before my time; courts of law and all. So either you put an end to this wedding, find a nice girl in town and keep your affairs here where you belong – where your roots are -- Or you can marry her and turn your back on your back on all of it.”
You’re out of options and have nowhere to turn. Still on your knees, you put your head down thinking that you would do the right thing, if the right thing were revealed.
You look at your sobbing fiancée, skin tender with tears and bruises. She looks at you, her eyes filled with resentment. How, after all of this, will your relationship ever survive? You’ve promised her a life that you won’t be able to give her. And you’ve put her through hell. If these people are half as deranged as they seem, they could haunt you for the rest of your lives.
The satisfaction you’d get from spitting in the face of this arcane contract won’t justify wrecking her future. You’ll end the marriage here and let her run. Turn to [[Chapter Sixty]]
Every tip of every nerve in your body burns. The feeling of betrayal drowns you so completely that you could choke on it. Your parents never spoke a word about this and lured you back to Rib Lake knowing this might be in the cards. And this piece of shit in front of you – no, not just him, each slack-jawed idiot in this room – thinks they hold your destiny in their hands. Sophie has never betrayed you, she’s never lied to you and she has never made you feel like your lives together would be built on money. These lunatics and their ghost stories will never find you on the other side of the country. Even if you two live out of your SUV for the next five years, you can’t let her go.
The moment you and her are out of this town, you’ll marry her and everyone can deal with their own bad luck however they like. Turn to [[Chapter Ninety]]
You don’t have the courage to raise your head or lift yourself from your knees when you speak, “Don’t hurt her anymore. I want to see her leave.”
You can hear Sophie break out into tears.
“You have a good home here,” Elias says. You hear him bark some orders to the group and then the sounds of Sophie struggling. Your treachery has turned her wild. She throws every scrap of garbage she can find at you – a wooden chair clatters close to you, a wine bottle smashes into pieces at your knees and miniature replica of a float plane snaps on the ground beside you. But they soon get her controlled.
“What the hell are you doing?” she shrieks at you, “Who the fuck are these people?”
The sound of her feet scrapping along the hardwood floor and kicking at you as they shove her past you is the last you ever hear of Sophie.
The party is uncharacteristically silent.
Chad bends down beside you with two ice cold beer bottles in his hand. He hands one to you and you take it. He holds the neck of the bottle out for a respectful toast. You do the same.
What he doesn’t know is that you have a shard of the wine glass pressed into your other palm. In any other circumstance the pain of the fragment splintering your skin, piercing the muscle and the sensation of blood pooling around your fingers would have been unbearable. Chad’s arm stretches towards yours and it brings his face just another two inches closer to you. You don’t hesitate. You pull back your bottle and lunge at his neck with your other hand. The shard of green glass has a foothold in your skin so it doesn’t slip, it plunges an inch deep into Chad’s throat and glides smoothly across it when you pull it. You can’t tell if it’s your blood or his smeared across his throat. It doesn’t matter, his eyes have bulged with either shock or adrenaline and given you your next target. This time you put your whole body behind the fragment and drive it into his eye socket. He topples over from his squat, his hands around his neck and you are splayed out in front of him, the glass still in your hand.
The instant is over and commotion erupts; first towards you, the men kicking and dragging you to the corner. But you’re numb. So numb to all of this now. You get an occasional peak to the other side of the room. Chad is laying still.
“Get off of me, you fucking trash!” you scream at them, “Don’t fucking touch me.”
You get a boot to the face for your trouble but Elias runs over and decks the young man who landed the blow.
You use your legs to slide you up the wall. Now face to face with Elias for the first time.
“Clean this up. I don’t want to have to tell you again,” you say.
“You fuckin’ crazy? You fuckin’ killed him. Cold blood,” Elias says frantically.
“You think my grandma, or whatever, gave you guys a hard time? I’m not leaving this fucking shithole. No. I own this fucking shithole. And I’m going to run it into the fucking ground,”
Elias gets in your face, “You think your dad’s gonna be a fan of that, huh?”
“He won’t be around forever. And when he’s gone I’m gonna buy the grocery store then I’m gonna close it. I’ll buy the bakery and I’ll close it. I’ll shutter this whole town. And if you don’t like it, I’m gonna buy the cops. Until you and your backwoods, stupid, inbred families either starve or drink your selves to death. You don’t need a witch. I’ll give you something to be afraid of.”
Elias doesn’t say a word.
“You can’t fucking touch me. If I die, there’s no agreement. So for the last time, wrap that moose’s body up and bury it on the grounds. Tell his family whatever you want,” you say.
Elias looks at you.
“Well, do it! And clean the fucking blood up!” you yell confidently.
Elias balks but then starts to order the men around you to start getting some gear out of the trucks and start digging in the mill’s farthest south forest.
Make a different decision
“Keep the money,” you say, “Do what you want with it.”
Clearly this isn’t what the room expected to hear as everyone falls so silent that you can hear finger pads dent the side of a blue plastic cup.
Just a moment before, Elias was a cleric who vilified the history of each cut of wood you stood within. Now you had put it all to bed with one sentence, one idea, “That won’t do,” he finally says.
But you hear Elias’ tone lighten from before -- where it was once a wall, it was now a path. Just like everyone else, his mind was envisioning limitless fantasies. The focus was off of you, not a single eye, old or young lay on your head. Everyone in the room either spoke to their friend or were lost in a daydream.
The only person you can’t count in that crowd is Chad, who leans against the far wall with his arms crossed sipping on a beer. Exhausted and in pain, you lift yourself up off your knees and make your way to Sophie. You hold her cheeks in your hands, you can barely recognize her. You have no idea what she could be thinking. You kiss her on the forehead and then the lips. Yes, she was different now. But hopefully you could both remember what it was like before this.
Chad steps behind you with his fist balled and smashes the silence with a beer bottle across the floor, “What about the god damned witch?”
Elias reaches out and puts his hand on Chad’s shoulder, “Just a story, son.”
“No. No, it’s not. My granddad got spooked by her and fell off his canoe into the river. She put his head under water and he almost drowned. He told that story every year.”
A few in the crowd supported Chad but only showed it by whispers of tall tales passed down their family lines. But no one rallied and certainly no one could feel the supernatural downside when their fingertips were held out in anticipation of dollar bills.
“Fuckin’ right, all these people got stories. You can’t just walk away fr--” he yells at you but is interrupted by Elias.
“Get some sense in your head,” Elias says.
With that, the greed rushes back to flush the faces of the townspeople now gathering around Elias and asking him what the next steps were – how much money was the town getting? How it would be split up? Even going as far as to ask for things on the spot like a new truck or roof.
You clasp hands with Sophie tightly and make your way towards the exit. As if you and her had never been there, the party breaks out again even more raucous than before. The women coil around their men with a drink in their hand imagining new ski-doos in the summer and designer jackets in the winter. The men stand solid, chests large thinking of themselves as rich and powerful.
The only one not romanticizing is Chad. He doesn’t break his gaze from you and Sophie as you inch closer along the wooden floorboards, the draft of the cool night against the back of your arms. Once you are close enough to put your free hand against the handle of the door, it no longer seems necessary to run. You are a forgotten threat. You are no longer a specter that looms over Rib Lake. Knowing that, you push past the heavy door and make your way outside.
“Don’t let go of my hand,” you say. They could change their minds or find a new reason to fear you. Things could get much worse.
You begin to run, but not back the way you came. You circle around the building to the front and run up the driveway to the main street. Once your feet slam the pavement of the main road you look back. All of the lights of the mill have been turned on. You can make out shadows against the front room dancing. The music and carrying-on never left your ears. But Chad has followed behind you and left his crowd. He stands at the start of the mill’s driveway, his eyes searching for you.
You and Sophie run up the main road until your legs fail, you stumble and the only thing keeping your lungs from exploding is the thought of headlights at your back. But they never come.
Crashing through the door of your parent’s guest house, you stuff all your important belongings into your pockets or under your arms and leave the same door swinging lonely out into the property on your way out.
You don’t fumble with the keys or check the gas light. You hit the pedal and concentrate on moving forward.
You shoot down the road the same you had run up. Yet something catches your eye to the left.
“Don’t look at it,” you say, keeping your eye on the road in front of you. However, the sight is too much and you can tell that she is looking over your shoulder. The space-dark cabin of your SUV warms with a hue of light that is gone as quickly as it came.
The road stretches out infinitely behind you as chevrons blink under the hood and appear out of the back only to be lost in the dark shroud. However, just like the bon fire in the forest, a flame burns tall and fierce down the road behind you. The fire that ravages the mill licks the stars in the sky in your rearview. And that’s how you’ll remember it.
Make a different decision
The witch does not even need to hear you say the words. She lets go of your right hand and holds your left hand between both of hers. When she takes them away your hand glows like the forest behind you, holding wild fire a foot tall. You jump back from it instinctively and wave it away from you. You hear the flames roar against the wind as you try to shake it off but your open palm is the kindling that burns unbounded. You drop to your knees and try to suffocate it into the dirt, pushing your hand into the soil as if it were fit for the grave. Small, blue flames leak between your fingers. You look up at the phantom, your heart still pounding but she doesn’t lend you her gaze, her sight is still set on the mill.
She nods, “Finish this part of history,” and with that fire pushes back from your palm and chars the earth below, sending you up off your knees and falling backwards. The heat, the force and your heart plunging into your stomach force you to tears. Your hand is still raised high while you sob on your back, but you know that you’re only delaying things.
You can still hear the screaming voices of the mill in the attic of your sanity. You stand, and march with your hand out in front of you towards the mill. You wipe the tears off your face with your right sleeve. Tiny sparks begin to shoot off from your palm and into the side of the mill’s log walls. Like small seeds, these sprout wrathful flames; one below the window, one to each side of the wall and four on the roof. Once each of these sparks has grown to a furious blaze, your palm smolders and your hand is your own.
You turn back for the witch, to ask questions, get answers -- but she’s gone. Instead you see the black smoke that’s filled the sky and blocked out the stars. Behind you the mill roof collapses piece by piece and although you can’t hear cries of terror and pain anymore you know that no one could have made I out alive. You begin to run around the inferno, to the main road you and Sophie drove past. And on your way, pray that she can forgive you.
Make a different decision
Your mind ripples like waves but it only lets the sound from the mill through and you hear Sophie’s voice among the frenzied group imprisoned inside. She sounds puny and hopeless, aching for help.
You rip away mentally and physically from the witch and dash as fast as you can towards the back door of the mill. Like a tick in your ear you hear the witch hiss, “You’ve chosen this burden.”
A speeding ball of fire the size of your fist whirrs by your head and into the log side of the mill. Then four more imbed themselves like lumps of coal, smoldering into the wall. Like small seeds, these sprout wrathful flames; one below the window, one to each side of the wall and four on the roof. Before you throw all of your body and urgency against the back door like a battering ram, the whole place is entangled in the blaze.
Your barreling figure tears the door off the hinges and you collapse on top of it into the large room of the mill. Between the smoke and frenzied townspeople scrambling over you, you can’t see much. But you can still hear Sophie in your thoughts. She coughs her pleas for help. You look around the room and see that it’s empty. She must be upstairs otherwise she would have tried to escape with the others.
You cry out for her as you lift yourself off of the broken door and through the soot filled hall towards the staircase, climbing it with all your energy. The second floor is bare and there is only one closed door at the end of the hall. The blaze roars with fury, tearing away at the lumber around you. You can’t hear Sophie anymore. You get to the closed doorway and yell through it to Sophie that everything is going to be OK and ask her to move away from the entrance. You get no response. You kick at the door and it rattles but doesn’t waver. You shout her name, anguished at the thought of you both getting caught in the fire. Then the door creeks open slightly. You grasp the handle and push it, stepping through with no time to waste.
The room is empty.
The door slams shut behind you. You try the knob and bang against it but it doesn’t budge. You whip around to try and find an escape through the heat and smoke that is quickly melting your senses. But you’re nose to nose with the witch. You’re paralyzed, you can’t shift or speak or even look away. Your head begins to tilt slowly up, the tip of your jaw, high and proud; but it doesn’t stop there. It continues its lift until you can barely see her face for the smoke. Your body shudders as the bones in your jaw begin to crack. You feel the pain drop down your body as blood fills the back of your throat. Then the pressure of the world against the back of your neck; It’s so immense that vertebrae grind against each other all the way along your back until they start to pop. This pain is different. It feels like a cold glass of water spilling from your finger tips into your inside. Now all you can see is the smoke and the fire. Your mouth opens large and wide, and you feel your cheeks split to form a pit of your face. The smoke begins to drip from the ceiling into your mouth. And as it coats your tongue, it stinks of dust and ash. Without warning the drip became a pour, taking in all the tantrum of the inferno. With that, the mountainous pressure on your neck is relieved with a snap.
Your eyes flutter awake. You’re standing in the driveway of the mill in the dawn sunlight. Around you are parking emergency vehicles. Idling fire trucks and open ambulances. Men in uniforms linger without urgency. You turn around and see what used to be the mill; ashes amounting to no more than an afternoon of cleanup. The trees of the forest behind look hurt, their leaves singed and their bark stripped.
But the heat of the fire is gone. You look up the road and see a dot quickly approaching you, after a moment you recognize it as your car. Relief fills your toes and you sprint out into the middle of the street, waving your exhausted hands in the air for Sophie to see.
You can see her curly hair in the driver’s seat. Her glasses. Her style. You can’t wait for your life to start again and leave Rib Lake. She speeds towards you and you smile wide. Sophie isn’t slowing down. You flinch, wanting to get out of the way but it’s too late. She drives through you.
Make a different decision
Chapter Twenty One
One by one the party turns to her in awe. The smoke is not rising; it’s falling to her feet and clouding around her ankles. With all eyes on her and yells for help going ignored, the speechless woman rubs Lorie’s back as a mother would do a small child.
Lorie straightens up. The last bit of smoke leaves her mouth and settles on the ground. She finally catches her breath and manages to thank Jesus as the mute woman crouches down and scoops two handfuls of the smoke from the dirt. A trail drifts behind her fingers as she lifts it through the air. She stands before her and pours it all into one hand where it overflows and tops off her cupped palm. Moving in an instant, the voiceless woman has her empty hand wrapped around the back of Lorie’s head and the other over her mouth, pressing hard.
“Burn,” she says.
You blink and the White Witch is four feet away from Lorie and taking another step back. The smoke at Lorie’s feet funnels back towards the stars and into her mouth. Her eyes protrude from her head, slick as rain as she tears up. Her skin quickly turns from red to purple and then the color leaks from it until her pale hands wrap around a pasty throat. Lorie collapses to the ground, twitching like the small branches in the burn barrel.
“Run,” you say to the people around you but they don’t move so you yell as loud as you can, ignoring the pain in your side, “Run!”
The crowd scatters from the witch like were sand in a hurricane. For all of Chad’s bravado he pushes people out of the way and is the first person off to the south for an escape. The witch hasn’t moved a muscle. The bullies holding you captive take off towards the northern woods.
Without their hands on you, you slouch over in pain and wrap your arm around your rib cage to put pressure on your injury. When you look back up you see the same thug -- he’s made it only so far and now holds his hands over his mouth, dangling three feet in the air in front of the witch. She knows no time and no space.
“Burn,” she utters again and the trees to the north begin to spark.
Their bark glows red and pulses as if the fire itself was lit in the first ring of the stump. A tree splits -- a rage of inferno escaping as it casts one half of itself aside. They fall like dominos, each tree ready to rupture when touched by the flaming debris of another. A sea of terrified partygoers that had been trying to make their escape that way, turns back to the south. They crash past you with no intention of saving a soul but their own. Behind them the fire is capturing more kindling and inching closer.
Amongst all this the witch stares at your former goon who still floats, kicking the air to let him down. The thought of saving him crosses your mind and you begin to put together an idea when you see his right shoe combust, the leather and rubber flaking and dripping off of his foot, onto the ground. Then his left. It looks as though a volcano has been poured into his bare feet. The witch looks at you and you hear her soft voice as if it were nestled in your ear, “Come with me.”
With that the legs of the ruffian begin to melt. His flesh stretches a meter before it snaps and lands as a clump on the ground below him. His screams pierce your ears with a blast like from a siren but then he passes out, limp above the mess. You’ve seen enough and take a deep breath before you barrel through the pain and sprint away from the fire to the south.
With every turn through the brush you take, you see and feel red. You finally make your way to the clearing and burst through the tree line. Beyond are five acres of grassland surrounded by the forest and backing out onto your family mill in the distance. Some of the partygoers are still dashing across the field towards the mill, some lay burned and begging for help. But it’s hard to keep your wits about you when you are surrounded by the irrepressible heat of a forest fire.
You look up to the sky and see that instead of enveloping the night with stars and blackness as it usually does, deep space seems to be desperately trying to smother the flames from above. The entire forest is orange with light that backs the darkness away farther and farther. Just when the galaxy seems to have a moment to keep the blaze at bay, a plume of smoke blinds it from below.
You keep plowing towards the only part of your vision that isn’t soaked in the heat and the light of flame – the mill. There are two men to your left, one hobbles with her arm slung over the shoulder of the other. You can feel the heat on your back rising.
“Slow down, I can help,” you yell to them. They look back and ease their speed.
As you approach them, you see the shirts on their back begin to singe off and their skin turn red to peel like a pig on a spit. They cry out in pain and you try to reach them but flames catch their arms and head then pop their skin like loosed ember in the wind. You begin to wonder how you were spared but you feel something on your palm, as if it were skimming the top of a cool pond in the winter. You turn and see the witch now walks with you, your hand in hers.
“Don’t speak. I have much to tell you,” She says and her words push the pain out of your body. You’re able to stand straight, walk comfortably and get a closer look at the White Witch of Rib Lake. The bun that her hair had looked so tightly tied in is frazzled with light brown strands escaping in every direction. Her face is indeed firm and compact with beady brown eyes; a small, slight nose and lips so tight they disappeared into her expression like behind a fog. The white dress she wore looked hand-made from a time you only see in photos. Her voice is young and soft and comforting so you do not recoil or flinch or run. You don’t cry or gasp. You walk with her towards the mill, entranced but not knowing if it is your will or not.
“Your great grandfather and my husband, John, were brothers. John and I ran the mill. It was a boon for the town. There was work. People planted roots. And we became a wealthy family quickly. But some in Rib Lake believed that since I was not born in Taylor County, I did not have their best interests in mind. Over the years their paranoia overtook their good sense.”
You walk closer yet to the mill.
“A time had passed and jobs were no longer in demand. But the people blamed me. Everything that changed for the worse was my fault, they thought. Each word of gossip twisted their hearts and minds to form a conspiracy that relieved them of control of their own lives. So convinced they were that I had deceived them, they locked me in the mill and set it to flame. From that day on I was trapped. I couldn’t reach out to my family for love or around their necks for revenge. All I could do was walk the forest,” she said.
“They mean to do the same to you tonight,” she continued, “Those in the mill tonight will take your family and estate and most of all - your dear love away from you. Because of a jealousy passed on through the blood in their veins like a sickness.”
You approach the mill now, only twenty feet away and the White Witch of Rib Lake leans across and clutches your other hand, “Look.”
Suddenly, your vision floats inside a room of the mill. It is splattered with photos, paintings and incased artifacts on the authentic log walls. The floor is covered in displays, showcasing clothes and any significant pieces of the town’s history. What catches your eye is the group of women in the back, slamming themselves against a door, trying to get it to budge, each wearing a different white dress. Panic has set in to them and most of the party goers from the bon fire. Including Chad, who kicks at the back door with all his strength. His brute force would typically splinter the wooden frame in two, but the with is clearly using her powers to alter his reality. The rest pound against the doors and windows, pleading for an escape. Imploring divine intervention that would save them from whatever catastrophe they’ve stumbled into. But the space is filled with more than just those who picked you up at your parent’s house. Older men and women stand huddled together too, not scared, more accepting of their possible end with moist eyes.
The witch’s voice flutters in your mind like a butterfly, “It wasn’t enough their families long ago took my life, they wanted to ruin yours as well. Let me slay them. Scorch them like they did me. I can finally move on and you can be free of them.”
You regain your vision and look at her. Her eyes begin to well with tears but she composes herself.
“If I spare them now, it would be on your wishes. My soul demands release. And my fate would be set upon you. You could never leave this place. It would be your destiny to haunt Rib Lake beyond your lifetime. Until the people of this town let go of their grudge.”
You’re frozen, speechless and staring into the eyes of a specter who asks you to consider so much. You decide the best you can.
How will you ever know the truth of this matter? The only thing that you can be sure of is that you are encountered with realities beyond your limits. People’s lives are at stake and if you believe the witch, those same people would have killed you if it weren’t for her force. You’re inclined to believe her just from the primal anger you could sense from Chad as he pummeled you. It’s possible they all harbored those same feelings against you and were set on ruining you. If the spirit of the witch can confine you to Rib Lake, this is a chance you are not willing to take.
You think of Sophie and can feel your future together slipping away, like a distant horizon. There will be blood on your conscious and you will explain this to her one day -- hopefully she’ll understand -- but you have to make the choice that leads you back to her. You decide to let the witch burn the mill. Turn to [[Chapter Seventy]]
How will you ever know the truth of this matter? The only thing that you can be sure of is that you are encountered with realities beyond your limits. Which means the witch could lie. She wants brutal, wanton revenge. But you’ve only heard one side of the story. Chad is a violent man and this town has warped his mind – but he and these others don’t deserve to die. The witch’s powers seem enough to watch the world collapse but she forces your hand to make the decision to take lives with a threat hanging over your head. These people are innocent for all you know. And you don’t believe any curse could keep you from being with Sophie.
Sophie wouldn’t want you to make a decision based on fear. You ask the witch to spare the people in the mill. Turn to [[Chapter Thirty]]