Milky Way Novel Excerpt

The core of the Milky Way rises into the night sky. Photo by Paul Brooks. Visit the photographer’s website at PBrooks.Photography.
This is an excerpt from my second novel, a work in progress.

Chapter 1.

Wiping the mist from her windshield, Sierra parked parallel to the bay and shut off the engine in the electric blue 1977 Pacer. After a sudden burst of rain, the sky had cleared above the vintage car, and it echoed the hue with a deeper blue, under an umbrella of shimmering stars.

Sierra stepped easily into the night, sucking the cool air into her lungs. It was invigorating, not just to be here, in this sacred place, but to be free and open to adventure again. She knew this place like the folds in her jeans, after her father had taken her to the lake so much as a child. She wanted to bolt for the shoreline, but she was well aware that its rock ledges carried a degree of danger. On these shores, everyone had to navigate the earth with care, if they wanted to witness the immense beauty of the water.

Already, Sierra could hear the waves of Lake Superior break against the rocks and recede back into the tumultuous bay. The crisp June air, combined with the sudden rainstorms on land, had awoken something in the water, thrusting the current up onto the rocks and cliff walls. She had followed a shoreline drive to get here, and on the way, she had seen the violent waves crash onto the shore at several stops. Still, she moved closer to the lake.

The minute Sierra reached the rugged shoreline, cold spray soaked her weary face and her tattered brown coat. And yet, it felt like home. Years of trips taken along the shore had taught Sierra about the unpredictable current – the powerful force that moved just below the surface. If she walked in an agile fashion and respected the power of the lake, she knew she would find a safe place to stand along the edge.

There was something magnetic about this place. She had come here often, even with the rustic lodge nestled nearby. To this very spot. An outcropping of rock that jutted into the bay, the ridges forming steps down to the sea.

Sierra shook off the fatigue from the road, remembering why she had driven four hours at 11:30 p.m. on a Tuesday. A junior at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, she craved these nights on the lake. These interludes under the stars.

In southern Minnesota, it just wasn’t the same. She would drive through the day or night to get back to this place. She made the drive every time the lake called her home, no matter what she had to do the next morning. She would either make it back in time – or improvise.

Standing on the rocky terrain high above the water, Sierra reached down to her ankles. She tucked her acid-washed jeans into her boots and tightened the laces on the leather. The waves weren’t quite as high as they looked from the rusty car, and she saw an opportunity to get down to the shore. As she did on every visit, Sierra grabbed ahold of the single rail that led down a steep incline. She gripped the railing while she traced a narrow footpath, which was covered in pine needles as it wound down the ridge, behind a shield of evergreen trees. In a tangle of tree roots and earth, the path rejoined the rock surface at the bottom of the cliff wall. Cautiously, Sierra lowered herself onto the rocks below.

She knew it was risky to climb the Lake Superior shoreline alone, but a large alcove was hidden underneath the cliff. From there, the rock-lined shore stretched out over Lake Superior in a miniature peninsula. It was the one place where she felt her father’s presence the most. A serene spot where she liked to sit and stare up into the stars.

She had nearly reached this vantage point, when a wave curled against the side of the cliff. It soaked Sierra from her newsboy cap to the grooves on her shoes. She clung tightly to the rail, wincing as the brisk water washed over her small body. She watched as the current rippled back down into the bay.

“Yikes.” Sierra was no stranger to such wild, challenging excursions, but that was a close call, even for her. She combed her fingers through the back of her hair, ruffling the strands to release some of the water. Even though the rain clouds had long since passed, the waves were energized from a change in the weather. “Wish I’d arrived before the storm.”

The gradual climb to the peninsula was slick, but nothing Sierra couldn’t handle. Enough waves had washed up on the cliff that trickles of translucent water tumbled through the tiny grooves. Sierra watched her footing as she made the final pass over the rocky ledge and touched her boot to solid ground. She followed a flat outcropping until she reached the widening peninsula, using only moonlight to guide her. Then she sat upon the rocks, utterly soaked, and stared out at the mysterious lake.

“Look up,” she whispered, giving herself that one essential piece of advice.

The words, once her father’s, had become a sort of mantra. The two of them would have been hiking down a treacherous trail or fighting a fierce winter wind, when her father would watch her head drop. Instead of trying to persuade her to be cheerful, he simple reminded her to ‘Look up.’ Never quite knowing what to think, at first Sierra would scoff, but then she would turn her face skyward.

Exposed in the elements, she would see the situation for what it was, realize how it might appear through a larger lens. Pitfalls on a gutted trail would give way to a breathtaking view of river bluffs. Subzero temperatures would warm in the sun’s rays to reveal a glimmering world of snowy white. The scenario was always different, but her father’s reminder was the same.

Now, Sierra applied his simple advice to her daily life. When college became too stressful or life became too burdensome, she reminded herself to look up. To lift her chin. To face what lie ahead.

Sierra’s father had been dead for a full year. Now, she had to be the one to issue this gentle reminder. Hearing her voice muffled against the turbulent waves, Sierra lifted her face to the sky overhead.

Millions of stars glistened above her.

She counted more stars than she could see in the city, even more than the countryside had to offer, outside of Northfield. Her father used to say the sky in the north was a true dark, though she wasn’t sure exactly what he meant. Still, each point of light provided a steady presence. Some of them shone strong enough to cast their reflection in pools of water on the rocks.

The most beautiful sight of all was the Milky Way. Through the crystal clear air, the galaxy was extraordinarily visible tonight. It stretched from the northeastern horizon to the center of the sky in hues of orange and purple, with the core gleaming warmly above the water’s vanishing point.

Sierra smiled. This is what she had hoped to see. This is why she was here.

Her father, an astrophysicist, was enamored with the Milky Way. He had a passion for viewing the galaxy they called their own and peering into deep space. Through his constant pursuit of knowledge, he had instilled a love of the galaxy in his only daughter too. When Phillip’s life went dark, Sierra had been crushed. But of one thing she could be sure. If her father’s spirit was still out there, it was shining somewhere inside the Milky Way.

Sierra shivered. Startled at how cold her arms felt, she got up from the peninsula and climbed back up the rocks. It was slow going, the water tormenting her with splashes of cold, the rocks slippery under her numbing fingers. But she loved the thrill of the climb.

When she made it to the top of the cliff, Sierra headed straight for the lodge nearby. Called Bluefin Bay, it was within easy walking distance, and aside from warmth, it harbored the last place she had spent time with her dad. Phillip had taken her here one last time during her freshman year of college, showing her a serene spring break in the north woods. Back when she was a teenager, he had acquired one of the condos in the lodge as a timeshare, and it had been their northern getaway ever since.

Sierra’s body shivered with intensity. Her newsboy hat had chilled to a stiff position, but her jacket was drenched with enough water to keep her wet for days. By the time she reached the outdoor passageway at the lodge, she’d shivered so much she felt warm. So, instead of going into the common area, she headed straight for the condo that once belonged to her father.

Up here, she could dry off. Besides, there was something she wanted to find. Sierra rushed by the condo doors, each getaway suite bearing a separate entrance, until she found the right room number.

“Okay,” Sierra muttered. It was peak tourism season, so the rooms would all be full. “37. 35. 33. I know it’s on this level.”

She hadn’t seen any guests yet, and she felt confident she could finish this without anyone noticing.

“29,” she muttered. “27. Here it is.”

Sierra tugged her cap closer to her eyes, wrinkling her skin at the prick of cold on the bridge of her nose. She hustled toward the heavy wooden door for Room 27, then walked past it. Beside the door was a cache of firewood, stored in a large square bin with no cover on the facing side.

Suddenly, the wooden door opened.

“Liz?” A broad-shouldered man with a sculpted beard stepped into the passageway, and he took Sierra by the arm with his hand. “Weren’t you going to go to the – ”

Sierra turned to face him, and the man’s voice caught in his throat. In a single word, his voice sounded deep and burly, but when he spoke at length, it seemed softer.

“You’re not Liz,” he said. A startled look came over his face. His touch, gentle as it was, sent a rush of warmth into Sierra’s chilled arm.

“Uh, no.” Sierra let out an awkward laugh. She tried to conceal a shiver. “Let me get out of your way.”

As he watched her face, the pupils of his eyes seemed to deepen and take on a richer color, a vivid green.

They stood there, both at a loss of words, regarding each other with cautious curiosity. She was beginning to feel numb, but he was a vision of a different kind. Behind his beard, which was carefully shaven in the newest trend, his face was youthful. His fire-warmed expression glowed in the light of the lodge lanterns posted outside each door. He wore a forest green sweater that was tightly fitted and dark jeans with a bronze belt.

By contrast, Sierra’s complexion was fading into a dampened shade of blue. She was soaked, her skin losing color from the cold, and her eyes were having trouble adjusting to the artificial light. She’d been navigating by the light of the crescent moon for longer than she realized. Even her clothes offered little color, the sopping wet fabric tight against her chest and thighs.

“I shouldn’t be here.” Sierra bent down and reached for the corner where her father had always kept the keychain, tucked in a covey hole on the bottom of the woodbin.

A short, stocky man in uniform approached. “Excuse me, miss?” The staffer said. “It’s very late, and we don’t permit loitering on the property. Are you a registered guest?”

“Well, I – ” Sierra stuttered. She didn’t know what kind of person he took her for, but she had no proof she belonged here. She didn’t really belong anywhere. She dropped the keychain on the wood-planked path, noticing a piece of paper as it drifted to the ground at her feet. “No, not exactly.”

“You must be new,” the bearded man said to him. “I’ve never seen you here before.”

“Started last week. Is she disturbing you?” The staffer turned to Sierra. “What exactly are you doing here?”

“It’s just that I – ” Sierra had missed her father so much, she hadn’t stopped to consider how much danger the frigid splash of the waves might pose. She hadn’t expected to see anyone that night, either.

In the meantime, the bearded man picked up her things. He turned so that he was standing by Sierra’s side. Holding the keychain and the piece of paper for her, he eyed the staffer and listened intently.

“Look, we’ve had an issue with unwanted visitors on the property. If you can’t prove that you’re a guest, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“Wait a minute. Can’t you see that she’s freezing?” The bearded man gestured toward Sierra with his other hand. “She needs to warm up and fast. Come on, I’ve got a fire going inside. She’s with me.” He cast a look at the lodge staffer, but the guy just stood there. The bearded man placed his hand on Sierra’s shoulder and guided her toward the open door of the condo, where a yellow-orange glow hinted at a comfortable thermostat and a burning wood fire. He stared back at the staffer, imploring him to leave. “Everything’s fine here.”

The staffer waved his hand dismissively. As the man guided Sierra just inside the door, the staff person scurried back in the direction he came.

“I have to get out of this place,” Sierra said, once the guy was out of earshot. Obviously, someone had taken up residence in her father’s condo. If she had to, she could go out and sit in her car while she overcame the chills and waited for heat to return to her body. But her thoughts were growing disjointed, and she was struggling to picture where she’d parked.

“And you are?”

“Sierra.”

“I’m David.” He set the items from the woodpile on an oak bench by the door. A mix of concern and humor shone from the man’s eyes. “Now that we got that out of the way.”

David walked farther into the room, taking Sierra by the hand. She wondered what was written on the piece of paper, and she wanted to grab her things. She shuddered from the chill overwhelming her limbs. It was all she could do not to close her eyes in an intense physical reaction when David enclosed her frigid fingers in his warm palm. He guided Sierra across the tidy, rustic room to a large couch in front of the fireplace.

“I’m soaked.” Sierra didn’t want to ruin the couch. Instead of sitting on the couch, she found a spot on the floor in front of the blazing wood fire.

“We’ve got to get you warm,” David said. He lifted a plaid afghan from the back of the couch and draped it around Sierra’s shoulders, tucking the blanket in close around her.

Sierra looked up at him defiantly, but her body shuddered. Realizing she had pushed herself too hard, she gave in to his kindness.

“Did you fall in?” David laughed. He had a soft look on his face, the corners of his mouth turned upward in a smile.

“Right.” Sierra still wasn’t sure what to make of his charity, and she wondered if she should make a beeline for the car. She laughed, in spite of herself. “No, I just went down to the rocks.”

“Down to the rocks?” he asked, sitting on the floor beside her. “It’s practically the gales of November out there.”

“All I wanted was to…” Sierra hesitated. “Never mind. You’d never understand.”

“Try me.”

“It’s my dad.”

“Is he ok? Is he still down by the lake?”

“No. My father died last May.” She stared at the ground for a moment, unsure how to explain how much she needed to be here right now.

“That’s terrible,” David said, touching her shoulder. “How?”

“There was a fire,” she said. Caught off guard by David’s question, Sierra struggled to form full sentences. “It’s been so long since I last saw him. This place. I just wanted to…”

David made a simple gesture, encouraging her to spit it out.

“… Look up.”

He bent his head slightly, searching for her eyes.

“What?” Sierra asked. She wondered if she’d confused him. She also wondered how long it would take for her temperature to stabilize, before she could grab the things her father had left behind.

“Nothing,” David said. “Ok. You’re visibly shaking. Here.” He grabbed a blanket and set it over her legs, then he stood up. “I hate to say it, but your clothes aren’t going to dry anytime soon. If you want, I can find you something to wear.”

“I wouldn’t fit –”

He stammered, perhaps realizing what he’d implied. “Umm, Liz… She might have something. It would be a little big on you, but at least it would be dry.”

Sierra blushed, wondering why this man was offering her another woman’s clothing. She could only guess it was a wife or girlfriend he was referring to, maybe a fiancée. “Won’t she care?”

“Liz will survive,” he said. “You know, she’s probably used to it. She’s been running the Bluefin Bay lodge for years. I can’t imagine this is the first time someone has had a run-in with hypothermia.”

“Oh, I’m not –” Even as Sierra tried to counter him, she shivered violently. “Ok. If you’re sure it won’t bother her.”

“Hold on.” David walked back to a bedroom in the condo and rifled through the closet. After making a lot of noise sifting through clothing, he returned. He handed Sierra a pair of black pants and a pastel sweater, and he left the room, giving her privacy so she could change.

Sierra didn’t know where this woman was, but she didn’t have the courage to ask. She felt bad enough taking another woman’s clothes, but she slipped them on. The night had taken a turn she didn’t expect, and she was relieved to feel warmth seep back into her arms and legs underneath the dry fabric from a stranger’s wardrobe. Fully dressed, she moved to the fire – standing there as her body steadily absorbed more heat. When David returned to the room, he walked over and handed her a mug with steam swirling from the top.

“Green tea,” he said. “It’ll warm you up.”

“Thank you.” She took the mug, letting the steam from the tea tickle her nose. She glanced at the bench by the door.

Meanwhile, David seemed to be taking note of her baggy appearance.

“It’s a little bit big.” Sierra laughed self-consciously, as she tugged at the side of the sweater to show him the size gap. She gave David a sheepish look, feeling completely out of her element. “I don’t know how I can return this to your…”

“She’s my sister,” he said. David looked sheepish now.

“Oh. Your sister.” She breathed a sigh of relief. At least if the woman walked in, it might not be quite so awkward to explain herself.

“Right.”

“Thank you for this… For the clothes. I didn’t mean to…” Sierra was anxious to leave, and move on from this unusual scene. “Look, I really have to go.”

“You never even said why you came.”

Sierra didn’t respond right away. Not wanting to seem rude, she took a sip of the tea. She thought back to the woodpile, and the cubbyhole where she had found her father’s smallest possessions.

“So, what happened outside? By the wood pile?” David searched her eyes, and the vivid green of his own were almost impossible to ignore. They were bright with curiosity.

She set the mug on the table.

“You dropped something. Remember?” He moved toward the door, in an offer to retrieve it. “Here, let me get your things for you.”

She didn’t want a complete stranger to see what had been hidden out there, so she had to be sure to get her things first. She moved to the door quickly, trying to slide in front of him.

David beat Sierra to the bench. He lifted the keychain and picked up the sheet of paper that had drifted to the floor, squatting near the wood. Sierra looked on anxiously, while he examined the keys and trinkets attached to the chain. Other than a handful of keys, the only thing of note was a small kaleidoscope.

David held it up to his eye, looked at a few images, then smiled up at Sierra. “Is this what you were looking for?”

“So what if it was?” she replied. But she was looking past the keychain, at the paper that David held in his other hand. “What is that?”

David looked down at the aged paper, turned it around, and studied it. “It’s a sketch.”

“A what?” Sierra wasn’t sure she heard him right.

“A drawing,” he said. “Of what, I won’t say.”

David stood up. He handed the paper to Sierra, raising one eyebrow with interest.

Sierra gazed at the paper for a long time. “I don’t know why this is here,” she said. “My dad didn’t draw.”

“Let me see.” David took the piece of paper and looked closely at a line scribbled on the bottom corner. “What’s your dad’s name?”

“It’s –”

David read the signature out loud. “Phillip Welsh.”

.                    .                    .

 

© Copyright 2017 by Melissa F. Kaelin

For updates, follow @mfkaelin on Twitter or Melissa F. Kaelin Art on Facebook.

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