‘We’ll get one from you on the day you leave,’ he said. ‘It’s pretty laid back around here.’
‘Sounds good,’ I said. ‘Where you from?’
‘Italy, originally. My parents were immigrants but I grew up in an orphanage upstate. I like it out here in the wilderness. It’s lonely at times, but quiet, that’s for sure.’
‘Are you married?’
He shook his head. ‘Oh no, not for me.’
‘Is it hard work up here in the winters with the snow and all? Do the owners have a lot of vacationers coming in and out?’
‘I’m the owner,’ he said.
I looked at him and laughed. ‘Yeah…right.’
The man shrugged and poured another shotglass of Jack. ‘Why is that so hard to believe?’
I held out my glass and he poured me another. I drank it down, did it again.
‘You really the owner?’ I asked.
Pete nodded. ‘You’re good at pre-judging people, aren’t you?’
‘I just asked if you were the owner.’
‘Yes, but you find it impossible to believe that someone who looks as nondescript as me could have an MBA and own a multi-million dollar piece of property in one of the most expensive regions in New York.’
‘You have an MBA?’
‘Sure do,’ he said. ‘It was an accident, really. Bad time in my life when I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I went back to school to try to find myself.’
‘And did you?’
‘I did. But the MBA had nothing to do with it. That was all a big waste of time, if you ask me. I found this land in the mountains and I knew I wanted to build on it. I built five cabins, then ten. Now I’ve got 17 across a span of 200 acres. It’s worth millions.’
‘Wow.’ I thought of the risk and the guts and the determination it must have taken to do all of that.
‘There were a series of chance meetings that led me to this, of course. Before, I only dreamed about the mountains. But then I met people who inspired me along the way. Son, people are sent to all of us. Angels, you know. We all got ‘em.’
The man nodded. ‘Guardian angels.’
I laughed. ‘You really believe that? I don’t believe in all that stuff.’
‘So what you’re really saying is that you don’t believe in the things you can’t see.’
I shrugged. I wasn’t sure anymore. Sure, there were things that were unexplained, things that had happened that defied any sort of reason.
In the days prior to the accident I’d been warned. I’d felt anxious, an unsettling in my soul. Take a day off and spend it with Boo, I wrote into the memo section of my Blackberry. These moments are all you have.
Boo was asleep in the next room when I’d done that, and then soon the day was gone again and I had missed the chance. I never did take a day off. In all of her four years of life, not one day. Now, we were together but not.
‘Peter, you’re not what you seem,’ I said.
‘Jonathan, welcome to the Adirondacks. Stay a while. You’re going to leave better than you came.’
In an instant they were gone. Team Taylor, up in flames just like that. After the call about the accident I raced to the crossroads and watched from the side of the road, flames tearing at my trouser leg. Paramedics surrounded the car and I dived into it through the window in a frantic search for Boo, the fire biting at the fabric of my shirt, searing it until it crumbled like ash. Lacy was already gone. The ambulance had taken her away.
Someone, a paramedic maybe, pulled, pushed, maybe both, to get me out of the window of the car. My upper body slid out through the space where the other window had been on the opposite side of the vehicle as they dragged me by the arms over shards of glass and flames. My bloody face hit the pavement and a chunk of glass lodged in the side of my cheek. The smoke stung my eyes, a shield of grey and black. I turned back, saw the soccer ball sticker on the windshield, melting away. A backpack on the ground? A man stumbling? Both cars were black, a mixture of metal bonded together, as one.
When it was all over I woke up in hospital panicked and restrained. My face and arms were bloody, and I realized then that I’d have to play the game to get out.
‘How are you feeling, Mr Taylor?’ A handful of doctors hovered by the bed. A nurse held my hand, but her expression of compassion mixed with pity gave it all away. They were gone.
‘I’m numb,’ I said and choked back a scream. ‘But I’m OK.’ The last part was not true.
A week later, the police report came in and there had been a witness—a 50-year-old woman who said she’d never get over what she saw that day. A black F150 had broadsided the Explorer after Lacy had forgotten to stop. Forgotten? I read the lines on the photocopied report and knew it couldn’t be right. Forgotten? The witness reported that even after the impact, with the car upside down, that the driver had reached into the backseat, fumbled and fought for her daughter’s seatbelt. Lacy had tried to save Boo, even while the paramedics were trying to save Lacy. I continued reading.
The driver locked the car door when paramedics approached to try to remove her from the Ford Explorer. As flames engulfed the vehicle, the driver fought to unbuckle her daughter from the car seat.
Warrior mom, would not leave her baby girl. Team Taylor, gone in an instant.
On day two at the cabin I found the ground coffee in the cupboard, along with a container of powdered cream and even the vanilla flavouring that Lacy had liked. I figured out the coffee maker and before long I was standing out on the front porch in my bare feet watching the sun rise. The grass was wet, and three squirrels fought or played in the pine trees in the yard, depending on how you looked at it. One ran fast, bouncing and swaying like an acrobat across branches with the others in pursuit. Across the sky, sailing one tree to another, then down the bark to the ground in a near-miss collision at the bottom.
I stood there in my boxers and T-shirt and felt the warmth of the coffee mug in my palm. The forest was alive, bustling with gentle sounds. A crew of bullfrogs sang and gulped to each other from around the back of the cabin near the pond. Birds called loudly from every crevice and corner. I turned to step back inside for shoes and clothes and I stopped there, frozen on the deck. I stared at the inscription above the door: Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’ intrate. Latin? Italian? What did it mean? If I were home I’d Google it, and have the answer in moments.
I pondered it a while then walked inside, pulled on the one pair of trousers I’d packed for the journey, laced up my hiking boots over warm socks and set out around the back of the cabin towards the water. The ground was wet and slippery, and the canoe sat upside-down at the edge of the pond near a small shed. I wandered over, and when I ducked inside I saw two other canoes tied to ropes on a shanty dock. I stepped out onto the planks above the water and walked down the dock, leaning forward to untie the boat closest to me. Inside were two orange life jackets, oars and an empty Coke can. I worked the knot for a while until it unfastened, slid the canoe closer and stepped inside. The craft rocked left and then right as I steadied myself and found my footing.
I sat down and hoisted the oars into the water and began rowing. My arms engaged in one full movement, then another, until I fell into a rhythm. One fluid movement, one, two, three, I counted silently, with each perfect circle. My shoulders felt strong, and I inhaled the fresh mountain air.
Get your body moving. Engage your senses. Be alive, Jonathan.