My grandparents purchased a modest but charming cottage on Lake Erie in the 1960s. To this day, the rest of my family enjoy the property by staying there, sunning themselves on the beach, splashing around in the water, and having bonfires. At some point in my adolescence, I started enjoying it by staying up late, listening to creepy music, and writing stories about murder and guilt that were set at our charming little family cottage.
I was — and I remain — mesmerized by Lake Erie, the runt of the great lake litter whose unpredictability rivals that of its musically celebrated sister, Gitchigumi. It’s shallow and fickle. It can look absolutely stunning on a sunny day and like hell on a windy winter one. And the chunk of it that belongs to Wainfleet, Ontario, where our cottage is located, is so isolated from and forgotten by the rest of the world that I became convinced that all sorts of sinister things could go down there.
To the best of my knowledge, nothing like that has happened on the Wainfleet shore in the two decades I’ve been writing these ghastly stories. People have, tragically, drowned in Erie’s fatally deceiving undertow in nearby towns. Neighbours have come and gone, occasionally before their time. The carcass of what could have been a testicle-biting monster fish may or may not have washed up next door a couple years ago. But not once has anyone caused the death of a sibling or best friend and then engaged in untold amounts of psychodrama in and around the property.
But I have never let that stop me. To this day, I continue to write twisted stories about weird shit happening in Wainfleet, and I continue to insist that it can be the eeriest (sorry) place on Earth. If you let it.
“Million Days,” a story that I wrote curled up on the top bunk of what we creatively call “The Bunk Room” at the cottage, while I was listening to “Million Days In May” from The Headstone’s sophomore album, Teeth and Tissue, and reading even more Joseph Fucking Conrad, is the piece that started it all. I have no idea how I got this plot out of those lyrics. Or how I came up with it at all. Or how no one ever thought to take me to a therapist when I continued to write things like this.
I was so completely enthralled with my own talent and vision that I later adapted the story into a feature length screenplay. Which I then submitted in a screenwriting contest run by the Canadian Film Centre. I was so shocked and heartbroken when it didn’t win that I sobbed for a week straight.
I re-read the script a few years ago. The loss now makes perfect sense.
PART THREE: MILLION DAYS
It wasn’t always like this.
It’s hard for me to remember now, but my life used to be on a totally different path. It’s too late to go back that way now, just another one of the burned bridges that make up what I live. I don’t call this a life.
I’ve heard people talk about wanting to go back in time and change something they’ve done. I’ve heard people talk about wanting something desperately, but these people can’t know what it’s like to want to change just one day of the past so desperately that it constantly wears away at you, until there’s nothing else you could ever hope to think of. No one will ever know how much I need to return to that first Friday in May. It’s almost impossible to imagine that was only a few days ago.
I’d go back to that day, and I’d go to a movie, or stay home and listen to music, anything that would keep me from taking my two best friends, Doug and Jean, to my parent’s cottage for the weekend to get things ready for summer.
But, I can’t go back in time, I will never be able to change the events of that weekend, I can never even hope to forget them. It consumes my mind, and I’m sure it always will.
I wish that I could have seen it coming, but it came out of nowhere. We arrived happy and excited, two feelings I’ll have to forget about. The three of us had always been the best of friends, our lives seemed so perfect, it’s obvious now that they weren’t. If just the faintest sign of trouble had shown itself, I could have prevented it, I know I could have.
But there were no signs, I had no idea that anything was wrong until I heard him scream. That cry for help was the last thing Doug ever said, and it came too late for me to do anything. I stepped outside and found Jean walking towards me.
“We’re in this together, you’ll cover for me, right?” She hovered in front of my face. I nodded, I tried to speak, but I was unable to force words out of my mouth. I didn’t mean to nod, but I really didn’t have control over myself. I had my ideas, but I wasn’t sure what had happened. When Jean walked inside the cottage, I walked over to Doug.
I saw his body on the ground, lifeless, and lost all feeling in my own body. Blood trickled down the side of his head, the same blood that was splattered on the large rock laying beside him. My legs trembled as I returned to the cottage. Jean rushed around inside as she talked, I think it was directed at me.
“There’s no one around, so nobody heard him. No witnesses. If we can just get a story and stick to it, everything will be fine…” Yeah, I thought. We.
She asked me to help her dispose of the body, but I shook my head, I still couldn’t speak. I watched her disappear out of the porch’s light, and sat down to flip through some pictures I had taken a few days before. There were the three of us, smiling, laughing, three normal, happy people. They were just faces as I looked at them, those people didn’t exist anymore.
I could feel a rage boiling up inside me, my eyes burned as I fought back tears. Even just pictures were too much for me, they were my first reminder of a life I couldn’t return to. As I looked at each picture, I threw it to the ground.
By the time Jean returned, I sat staring at the wall, every single picture scattered around my feet. Anger and rage had been slowly replaced by apathy.
She started talking. “I managed to get his body and the rock out into the woods. It wasn’t a clean cover-up, but at least I wore gloves. I got his body into a pretty natural looking position, the ground is sandy, so I didn’t leave footprints. The story is… he went for a walk, and when he didn’t come back, we… I went looking for him. When I found him I thought he was still alive, and I tried to help him, that’ll explain things if they find my hair or anything like that on him. Then I ran back here and called the police.”
I stared at her blankly, not thinking of anything to say. I watched her become uneasy.
“I know there are a lot of holes in my story, but I figure it’ll save us for a while.”
“Us…” I muttered under my breath, it was all that would come out.
Jean shook her head. “Look…”
I stopped her. “ I don’t want to know.” I got up to walk to my room when she spoke again. I could hear her panic for the first time.
“You’re gonna tell them. You’re gonna blow the whistle on me…”
“I never said that. I’m going to bed, you’ll have to rework your little story.”
I went to sleep, assuming the police would wake me up within a matter of minutes, but it didn’t happen. In the morning, Jean was waiting for me.
“I didn’t call them,” she told me. “Our story had too many holes in it.”
I had to make one thing clear. “It’s your story, Jean.”
“But you’re covering for me… we’re in on this together…”
The fear and hundreds of other emotions in her voice clashed against the monotone that had taken over my speech. “I’ll go along with your story, but don’t think we’re partners in this. I didn’t murder anyone.” When I spoke, it was almost as if the situation had nothing to do with me, like I was an outsider, just watching. Deep down inside me, I could feel the emotions waiting for the right moment to explode. The tone of my voice was like a thin skin protecting me from breaking completely.
“I thought that we were coming up here for a weekend of fun. I guess you had other intentions. I can only assume that Doug had the same idea as me, but it’s a little too late to ask him about it now. Doug doesn’t talk anymore.”
“I know what it must be like for you.” I could feel my anger stronger than before. “It must be terrifying, and upsetting. I can see what’s going on in your mind, But it’s okay, we’ve got each other. I know you’re afraid that you’ll end up like Doug, but don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.”
It’s amazing how words that were supposed to give comfort did anything but. Suddenly, my tone, my protection, was gone. I lost control of myself. “Don’t you ever tell me what I’m thinking!!” I screamed louder than I ever had before in my life, and ever will again. I got up and started to walk away, throwing a chair to the ground as I went. As the chair crashed, Jean stopped me.
“You’re still good with my story, right?”
Every trace of my anger had disappeared with the falling of the chair. All my emotions had erupted, and then just vanished, totally gone. The monotone returned, no longer a cover for my feelings. “Is that all you care about?”
“No! I want you to trust me, I won’t hurt you. Nothing will happen to you.”
I laughed quietly, because her words were the only negative part of her answer. “Maybe you told Doug the same thing…”
As I walked away, I heard her whisper, “You just assume that I meant to…”
Up until that point, I had just assumed that Doug’s death was intentional, the word “accident” had never occurred to me. She sounded so sincere, she was probably torturing herself enough without my help.
I tried to be sympathetic, but I had problems pitying her when his mother called. When she asked for him, I had to support the phone with both hands to keep from dropping it. I wanted to cry out and tell her all that had happened, but I couldn’t do it, there was some unseen force that prevented me from saying what I needed to. Instead, I told her that I hadn’t seen him, and would have him return her call as soon as he came back.
“Tell him it’s important,” she added. I could almost feel the puppet strings attached to me. I knew Jean had put them there, but I still don’t know how.
“I wish you had picked up the phone,” I told her. “You don’t know how hard it was to hear her wanting to talk to her son, when I know that’s something she’ll never do again. There’s really no other way to describe it than torture, pure torture. I can’t help but think you did a little more to deserve it than I did.”
Jean started to talk, but I blocked out her voice, I was trying to hear something else. When I was younger, my favourite thing about the cottage was listening to the waves crash on the shore. It had a comforting effect on me, if I was angry, depressed, I’d just listen to the water. When I was really young, I thought it was the ocean, it took me years to discover it was a lake. Delusions are so plentiful in youth, as you get older, it becomes so much harder to shut out the truth. That soft noise could be heard through the whole summer, sometimes I’d lay awake at night, listening. That’s what I needed then, comfort. But I heard nothing, I couldn’t even get the smallest relief. Jean’s voice fought it’s way back into my head.
“What did you tell her?”
“That I hadn’t seen him, and when I did, I’d make sure he called her. I know how much it hurt me, it’s unimaginable what will happen to her when she finds out…”
“That it wasn’t intentional? Of course it’ll hurt her, but Doug’s a big boy.”
“He was, but he was still her son.”
I watched her search for a response. Her statement made it obvious that she hadn’t looked hard enough. “It’s always by the book with you, isn’t it? Care about everyone else and their emotions before you even start to think about yourself. Never take a chance… Do you? You’re afraid of living, J. You’re afraid of life!”
“Was Doug, so you spared him of it?”
“J!” Her reaction was like an echo of Doug’s scream the night before.
“Don’t call me that, my friends used to.” My voice never strayed from the monotone. “The last time a friend called me J was when Doug called for help.”
“But I am your friend. Doug may be gone, but I’m still here. I’m your friend and I’m still here.”
I shook my head. “Both my friends are dead…”
Jean ran out of the room, she returned maybe half an hour later with her backpack.
“There’s no reason for me to stay here. I called the police, and told them my story. It was an accident, and I was afraid to call before. I said you knew nothing about it, I kept it from you, until you got curious, and when I told you, you made me call. I’m sure they’ll be up to question you soon.”
“You know they’ll look for you.”
“That’s why I’m not telling you where I’m going.”
As she headed towards the door, I said one last thing. “It wasn’t an accident, was it, Jean?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her shake her head, and then she was gone. There were so many questions I could have asked her, but that was the only answer I needed.
The door shut, and I walked over to the photos still on the floor. How brave of me, I should have confronted her that night, but I couldn’t. Instead I punished pieces of paper with her face printed on them. Or, was I punishing all three of us for living a lie? It’s too late to matter now.
The police came, and I confirmed what they’d been told, but not for Jean’s sake. I remember one drive I took with my mother and a two of my younger cousins a few years ago. We saw a fawn standing by the side of the road. All of us were afraid of what would happen to it. As we drove away, someone asked if the fawn was going to be okay.
I looked back and saw it still standing there. “It’s fine. I saw it running into the forest.” I said it with my eyes still fixated on the poor fawn.
The youngest cousin still brings the story up now and then, and how happy he was that it was safe. No good would have come out of telling him the truth.
The fact that Doug is gone is pain enough for his parents. Jean has disappeared, I doubt anyone will ever find her, which makes it unlikely that she’ll pay for what she did. With almost no possibility of seeing her punished, the truth would do nothing more than add to their already unbearable grief. Now that I know the truth, I can’t hope to forget it, so I must learn to live with it. It wouldn’t make my burden any lighter by giving others heavier ones.
At first, I tried to convince myself that I could continue my life, almost the same as before. I knew it was impossible, and soon I forgot that idea. So much of my life was my two friends. You may think it an exaggeration, that your friends are important, but not most of your life, maybe someday you’ll be in the position to understand. Like so many other things, you don’t know how much you need them until you can’t have them back. I’m not finished living, I’m just doing it differently.
I’ve asked to be left up here at the cottage. I no longer believe that I’ll be consumed by this darkness forever, as the days pass, you get used to even radical changes, and they matter less and less. Soon, Doug will mean as little to me as that fawn by the road means now. I used to think it was wrong not to care about something that should be so important, but how can it be when the only alternative kills so much?
Now I spend my days here, all alone except for my thoughts. I hope they leave me like this, I hope they leave me here. I could be happy here.
I can almost hear the ocean.