he whispered to himself as he faced the stone fireplace in the living room
“and i need a place to stay.”
if the cabin had been occupied
simon would have left the island on the evening ferry as planned
but he was happy not to be returning so quickly to the dull heat of the prairies.
it had turned out to be a very hot july.
the main door to the cabin was locked
as was the sliding glass door on the front deck
but the back door next to the wood pile was blatantly open.
in the living room simon pulled back the blinds and sat down on the loveseat.
the view of the ocean of trees and rocks and of the arms of the island
was painfully beautiful.
enthralled by this vision he decided that he would stay for a few days.
that night he slept on the couch next to the fireplace
under old wool blankets from the vintage chest.
in the morning when he returned to the loveseat and took in the view again
simon agreed to stick around into august.
two weeks later he turned on the fridge and started stocking perishables.
by september he had taken down three slender trees at the side of the property
and stored them in cut logs next to the back door.
he was invested for the winter.
the crosbys he thought would never visit in the winter.
every week on thursday morning just before she left for bowling
simon called his mother in saskatoon.
she had so many questions very few of which he could answer directly.
every week she asked him to call earlier even ten minutes
so they would have more time to talk
but he ignored her.
for years simon’s family had put up with behavior like this.
he had been a floater for most of his adult life especially since the death of his brother.
his family and friends learned to expect surprises from him.
he changed his plans often even his best plans.
the visit to the island was no different joining his parents only at the last minute.
afterward he had surprised them again by staying on the island.
his mother worried but his father had given up years ago.
there were two bedrooms neither of which he used.
he decided to limit himself to the living room the bathroom and the kitchen
and only the back door leaving the other two locked.
he never used the driveway always the trail along the water that met the bridge.
people may have noticed him stepping out onto the road
but it was common that others used the trail.
tourists frequented the island not in masses but in a steady trickle.
his parents had pointed out the crosby cabin during the previous week
when the three of them were out for a walk.
not that they knew the crosbys
but they knew that the property was beautiful and that the owners were rarely there.
simon had nodded casually.
it was beautiful
prime waterfront real estate
with about five acres of pine trees arbutus and low-lying brush
and two beaches separated by a rocky outcropping right in front of the cabin.
the larger beach stretched out to the left and pushed around the corner of the property
toward the single-lane bridge that spanned the narrow waterway
between the north and south parts of the island.
the little beach to the right formed a delightful crescent-shaped bay.
a gravel driveway wound its way from the road to the cabin through the bush.
consequently the cabin itself was not visible from the road nor from any neighbor’s house.
it was sheltered though not entirely secluded.
the trail was open to the public and according to law so was the beach to high tide
inviting occasional explorers in the summer but seldom few as winter approached.
as well boats of various shapes and sizes frequented the waters
especially the channel dividing the island but rarely into the little bay near the cabin.
by mid-october simon started using the fireplace
a risk he was needing to take.
most of the islanders kept to themselves
though there were a few older ladies who were famously nosey.
simon had met them but offered them little
deceiving them diligently with passing tales about house-sitting for friends.
in november at the grocery store
the girl at the checkout called him by his first name.
simon had no recollection of telling his name to anyone on the island.
on december twentieth in the afternoon
as simon sat in the living room he heard something.
it was the sound of an axe on wood
and it sounded close.
he ventured out through the back door and peered down the driveway.
he saw nothing at first but followed the sound tentatively.
about half way to the road simon saw an old man working.
he was pulling small cut logs out of the bush and throwing them onto the driveway.
simon kept walking slowly.
he was in full view of the man before he stopped.
the old man rumbled without making eye contact.
simon did not reply.
“if you help me i’ll pay you.
not much but...”
simon took a few more steps toward the old man who was still busy retrieving the logs.
“i saw smoke in the chimney”
he said as he finally glanced up at simon.
without hesitation simon followed the old man into the bush and grabbed a log.
in silence they worked together salvaging the logs one-by-one.
after the pile in the bush was gone the old man began splitting the logs on the driveway.
simon began stacking.
side-by-side they gave themselves to the task at hand.
eventually the old man turned to face simon.
he said as he touched the brim of his weathered tweed hat.
in an instant the two men measured each other.
as jack turned away and reached for another log he continued in a solemn tone
“you must be the caretaker.”
as he faced the bush he began to move his head up and down coolly
hoping that jack was watching him.
“yeah i remember them talking about the idea”
the old man continued just before he swung the axe into another log
“especially mrs. crosby.
too bad about her.”
“yeah too bad”
simon agreed quickly and evenly.
the title of caretaker thoroughly pleased simon.
he never liked any of the labels of his former jobs:
milker egg picker chicken catcher even forklift driver.
they all lacked the dignity simon longed for.
especially the caretaker
touched a chord in his heart like never before.
somehow it fit.
it sounded big strong
like the title of a book or a movie
so powerful in fact that it made him forget another label disabled.
the next day he was awake early listening for the sound.
they worked together on the driveway for two hours.
afterward jack gave simon twenty dollars.
that afternoon simon went to the hardware store and bought some lumber.
by that evening he had fixed the two stairs at the back door
which were badly rotten and had been bothering him for months.
he was no carpenter but he did the job slowly and carefully
and in the end he was proud of his work.
a couple weeks later early one morning in january
simon heard a different sound as he lay curled up on the couch.
in the little bay.
by the time simon parted the blinds the engine was off returning silence to the dawn.
directly in front of the cabin a hundred meters off the beach
simon saw a medium-sized motorboat bobbing up and down in the waves.
the boat had a cover on it preventing him from seeing anyone on board.
the sky was filled with clouds.
he slowly stepped away from the window and sat down on the loveseat.
simon waited and listened and tuned a simple plan.
out in the bay an old man put down the anchor
and released a small wooden rowboat into the water.
he crawled into it carefully and rowed his way unhurriedly to the beach.
after pulling the boat ashore he ambled up toward the cabin.
simon didn’t move when he heard noises at the back steps.
he remained calm as the door opened and the man entered the cabin.
the old man’s tone was dignified.
simon was silent.
as the man moved into the living room approaching the loveseat from behind
simon’s gaze was fixed on the vertical blinds directly in front of him.
his left hand was resting on his lap
while his right hand was plunged deep between the cushions hidden.
once the old man could see simon’s profile he stopped.
“who the hell are you?”
simon spoke without hesitation.
“no you’re not.”
“yeah i am.”
“this is my cabin.
who asked you to be the caretaker?”
the old man looked at the blinds.
he squinted his eyes and pursed his lips.
his face turned dour.
simon’s right hand tightened on the handle of the kitchen knife between the cushions.
he turned his head and looked up into the face of the cabin’s owner.
in a steady voice he asked
mr crosby breathed quickly.
he began to snivel his chin quivering.
“because i don’t…
the old man’s eyes now blinked uncontrollably.
simon watched as something like terror overcame the old man and he began to crumble.
the pain in his face sank through his chest and drained his whole body.
his old knees buckled and he lunged at the couch
sitting himself down on the blankets that had kept simon warm for months.
simon’s mind began to race as he looked down on the vulnerable old man.
the body would be easy to hide he thought to himself.
the boat would be more difficult.
on second thought the boat was perfect.
it could be the grave itself.
mr crosby’s large hands covered his face.
he leaned back into the low couch and began to steady his breathing.
simon said as he loosened his grip on the knife.
as mr crosby’s hands dropped to his knees
he erupted with an apology
“oh i’m sorry.
i wasn’t ready for this.”
the two men looked at each other across the living room both of them alone.
“ready for what?”
“for any of this
for all the hassles of death and dying.
it’s a hell of a lot of work.”
mr crosby replied letting out a big sigh.
his head fell backwards and he began to chuckle.
quickly his chuckle became a laugh.
then his arms shot out toward the ceiling and he shouted as if addressing the heavens
“i don’t care!”
soon he was in hysterics his chest heaving up and down.
he began shaking his head and then yelled it again one word at a time
they were the loudest words simon had ever heard in the cabin.
he began to squirm and reached again for the knife.
he could feel adrenalin coursing through his veins empowering him.
just then the old man gathered himself
and in one swift motion he moved to the front edge of the couch
pushing his face toward simon and asking forcefully
“did you fix the back steps?”
yeah i did.”
simon answered intently.
the old man sat still
only his chin lowering slightly and his tongue slipping out from between his teeth.
simon was stunned and unsure about everything he had planned
yet he found the strength to match the old man’s stare.
the cabin was silent.
both men could hear the lapping waters in the bay.
both men could smell the remains of last night’s fire.
neither was eager to leave or to move or to give in.
finally the old man leaned back
and with a small smile on his tired face he uttered his verdict
“okay you can stay.”
“what do you mean?”