Fiction by Sheldon Birnie
The wind, the wind, the goddamn wind off the big lake has been roaring over us for days and nights on end; sending wave after countless wave crashing into the rocky shore; howling over the roof, slapping hard at the windows, and cutting in under the eaves and through the cracks in the walls and the gaps under the doors in this dusty old summer cottage we’re bunked up in.
“It’ll be fun,” my wife and I told each other, leading up to our vacation. “Kids’ll love it.”
By and large, they have. What’s not to love about the lake? They’ve even made some beach pals among the summer people. I’m the one who’s struggling.
We’d rented the cottage—for a pretty penny, I might add, determined as we were to give the kids a real lake experience this summer—through an acquaintance, the brother-in-law of a lawyer I play squash with once a week. While he’d described the place as having a “rustic, old school vibe,” I made the mistake in assuming he was being falsely modest.
I’m sure it was nice enough, in its day, located as it is on a little northwesterly facing point with a great view of the big lake out the front. But the path leading down into the property from the gravel road above was nearly overgrown, bush and tall trees crowding up against the cottage, as though to reclaim it. Inside, there were spiderwebs in all the corners and daylight showing through the roof like so many stars on a moonless night.
“I’ll get my guy to swing by and throw some tar up there,” was what the lawyer’s brother-in-law told me when I brought it to his attention. “Should do the trick.”
We settled ourselves in that first afternoon without further trouble. The day was clear, the air hot and humid and full of the sounds of summer revelry all up and down the beaches. The sun shimmered off the lake, silver turned to gold as the afternoon waned into early evening. After we got the kids to bed, the wife and I sat out on the deck to watch the burning red sun set across the lake.
“Cheers, my dear,” I said with a satisfied smirk. We tinkled our goblets of shiraz together, scattered clouds aflame in hues of purple, pink and orange, toasting our good fortune and the ten vacation days that lay ahead. “To a wonderful couple weeks at the lake.”
“Cheers, big ears,” my wife replied with a half drunk chuckle. “We’ve earned it.”
The next day, a sunbaked handyman in cut-off shorts and Birkenstocks showed up with a ladder and a bucket of tar to mend the roof.
“Should do,” the beach bum said with a wink, shrugging the ladder up over his shoulder after he’d finished up on the roof. “Enjoy your stay now.”
The wind picked up shortly after the man left. It hasn’t let up since.
The strip of sandy beach in front of our cottage—which I should add had been a big selling point—was all but obliterated by the waves crashing up and over again and again and again and again. And again.
Undeterred, we packed up and hauled them across to the beach on the south side of town, which was protected from the waves by the town’s new concrete pier. The place was packed, families and kids everywhere. It was fine, as far as a day on a crowded beach goes. The kids loved it, I sunburned my shoulders and bald-spot something fierce, and my wife kept chatting with people she knew, somehow or other, as they came and went. Those people, summer people up from the city, would inevitably ask us how long we were up for and where we were staying.
“Up there, eh?” they’d respond, or something similar, phony smile faltering just a little when we told them. “Well. So nice to see you, anyways.”
Getting the kids all the way back to the cottage, cranky and covered in sand, in time for dinner was a chore in and of itself. Afterwards, dishes done and kids asleep in bed, the wife and I went out to view the sunset, but we’re quickly driven back in by the wind.
“Sun’ll set again tomorrow,” my wife shrugged, filling our wine glasses to the brim before we settled into the cottage’s musty old couch.
But the wind was worse the next day, somehow worse still the next. It kept up steady, throwing waves up against the shore beneath the cabin and driving us across town each day if we wanted to hit the beach. Which, invariably, was where the kids wanted to be from the moment they woke up till we dragged them, suntanned and sandy, home for dinner.
Breezy as the days were, the wind seemed to really save itself for when the sun began to sink. Then it would howl all night. I couldn’t seem to catch a wink, no matter how much I put back to drink between happy hour and hitting the sack each evening. No matter if the wife and I had a roll around or not. No matter. The wind kept blowing.
“I can’t stand it,” I complained to my wife one morning, as bacon splattered in the cast iron pan. “It’s driving me bonkers.”
“So it’s a little breezy,” my wife shrugged. “Put some earplugs in or something.”
“Where does the wind come from anyway?” the oldest kid asked, scarfing down bacon.
“Nowhere,” I answered shortly. “Everywhere. All over.”
“You seen the wind, daddy?” the youngest inquired.
“Oh, I seen it alright,” I boasted, chuckling foolishly to myself.
“What’s it look like?” the oldest asked.
“Doesn’t look like anything,” I snapped. Kids can be such smart asses. “Just dumb old air.”
That night I couldn’t sleep. Not a goddamn wink. Again.
The wind found ways to blow in through the cracks in the cottage walls, rustling newspaper, threadbare drapes, and dust. I thought I could hear our towels and swim trunks snapping off the line, pictured them tangled up in trees, high and out of reach.
While our items from the line were intact the next morning, we discovered a large birch branch had not been so lucky, having been flung from its former home across the path that led up from our cottage to the road.
I called up the lawyer’s brother-in-law. He made his way down in short order from his newer, roomier cottage south of the pier on a shinny new Schwinn beach cruiser. But when he saw the branch, the lawyer’s brother-in-law just laughed.
“Does seem a bit windier over this side,” he shrugged. “Not so bad, over where we are. I’ll have my guy come by and cut this up here for ya this afternoon.”
The beach bum who’d fixed the leaky roof cycled into the yard after lunch on a rusty old Sekine, toting a banged up Husqvarna in one hand. As we stood around the fallen birch limb, I asked him if he could score me some weed, by chance. He looked like the type. I hadn’t thought to hit the dispensary before leaving the city. Hadn’t even considered it.
“No prob, Bob,” the beach bum told me with a wink. He dug into his pocket, pulled out a pack of smokes. “Got just what you need right here.”
Buddy took a joint out of the pack, handed it over. I thanked him profusely, enthusiastically even, though my name’s not Bob. Overpaid him for it, too, no doubt. But it didn’t matter. I was desperate. Buddy just winked my way again, and fired up the chainsaw.
After the kids were in bed, I lit up out back of the cottage—with some difficulty, as you might imagine—for the first time in years, maybe. A long time, anyway. My wife politely declined to join me.
Pleasantly stoned, I spent the evening sipping wine, staring out over the waves as the sun sank in the west, wind whipping up and over me. Later, I did in fact fall fast asleep for what seemed like the first time in ages. I slept deeply, too, without dreaming. But in the middle of the night, in the darkest hours, I woke in a panic. I didn’t know who or where I was. The gloomy cottage was an alien world until memory emerged from the fog of wine and weed. I lay back down, catching my breath. My throat was parched, my tongue felt like a mildewy old carpet. As I lay there, on the lumpy old bed next to my softly snoring wife, outside I could hear the wind whispering, snickering, occasionally howling in derision.
I spent the rest of the night tossing and turning. The wind was talking to me, whispering conspiratorially, but I couldn’t make out the words. The wind, I knew, saw right through me. Who was I to think we could pass for summer people with this shabby two week rental? The wind knew better.
That morning, after breakfast, the weather seemed to have improved. There was almost a sliver of beach out front of our place. I insisted we stick close to home that afternoon. The kids agreed without any fuss. I got down there with them wholeheartedly, tired as I was. We built castle after castle only to watch the waves claw them back into the water. No matter. We had the place to ourselves, and nobody wandered up to make idle chit chat. I burned a heretofore untouched part of my back, while my wife sat up on the deck and read a book. What more can you ask for?
By the time we climbed the sandy bank back up to the cottage, though, the wind had picked up again. By dinner, clouds began to roll in over the lake.
“Tut, tut,” I tittered. “Looks like rain.”
“Been awful dry lately,” my wife shrugged, sounding uncannily like her mother. “Could probably use it.”
But it didn’t rain that night. Not until the next night; last night, as it was. The wind, of course, remained a constant, sky overcast from dawn till dusk, with rain and thunder forecast overnight. We stuck around the cabin, playing card games and working through a stack of musty old puzzles we found in a closet. After dinner, we cuddled up on the couch under a blanket and read The Wizard of Oz, though it felt almost macabre as the wind rattled the windows and howled under the eaves and through the branches of the massive trees surrounding the cottage.
“Could a twister really up and lift us away, daddy?” the youngest asked.
“No way, sweetheart,” I bluffed, my voice lilting with false confidence. “Not much chance of a twister rolling over the water out there.”
“Could the waves wash us away?” the eldest chimed in, having heard all about tsunamis and tidal waves in school or on TV or wherever kids hear things these days.
“No, no,” I reassured, though honestly I had serious doubts. “It’d take more than a few big waves to wash this old cabin away.”
It took the kids a little extra settling than usual. But once asleep, I poured myself a few fingers of scotch and joined my wife in the front room. As she read her book, I stared out the dark windows as the rain began to fall. As the storm grew, so did my unease. My heart was pounding, my breath short. While the scotch was nice—blended, but still—it did little to staunch the anxiety building up inside me.
Drink empty, I began walking the floor, peering out the windows, as though my bloodshot eyes could penetrate the wall of shadow smothering the cottage. Rather, the sounds of the storm only poured fuel on my wildest fears. The wind would rip the roof off the cottage, topple a centuries old spruce over to crush the walls. Lightning would strike the old timber structure, burning us all alive. The waves would roll up over the banks, ripping into the sandy shore and pulling us all down into the lake, our drowned bodies pulverized among the rocky depths by the relentless churning of the water.
“Are you OK?” my wife asked, startling me so bad I let out a little squeak.
“Fine,” I lied. “Just fine.”
“You’re not acting fine,” she said, giving me the eye.
“It’s just… windy out there,” I shrugged, feigning calm. “Like, real windy.”
My wife shrugged back, returned to her book. Maybe this was a bad idea, this brooding.
Maybe this whole vacation was a bad idea? But I couldn’t help myself. Someplace with a hotel, a waterpark, everything easy and laid out, would have been nice, right? But here we are. Pacing, I circled the cottage, peering up into the dusty rafters for leaks that weren’t there, for some sign that the weather was getting the best of the woodwork. My wife kept reading. I tried to settle in, to join her, again and again, but my eyes kept dragging themselves back up to the dark window panes as they rattled away.
Hours later, now, my wife has gone to bed. But I’m still up, still staring out over the lake, watching the wind rip the clouds apart and smash them back together again. Rain pours down, waves splash back up again. Lighting forks ever closer, thunder booming so close the glass in the windows rattles. The cottage itself seems to shake under the onslaught, which has dragged on now well past midnight.
Of course, the wind blows on. And it will keep blowing long after this little vacation of ours that we scrimped and saved for so is over. Long after it is nothing but faint memories and a few photos in the cloud. Even those will blow away, one day, too. Like everything else.
The wind, the wind, the goddamn wind keeps roaring up over us, slapping hard at the windows, a pressure crushing in from everywhere at once. Resigned, I step out the front door, face the dark empty lake with arms open wide, rain lashing my face, soaking my t-shirt, my shorts. It’s OK, I keep repeating as lightning flashes, thunder booms. It’s OK.