A Short Story by Melissa F. Kaelin
Wiping the crud from her eyes, Sierra parked parallel to the bay and shut off the engine in the orange 1977 Pacer. Up the coast, a rustic lodge glowed behind the flicker of dim wall lanterns. But here on the cliff, darkness shaded the scene below the crescent moon. She stepped into the night, sucking the cool air into her lungs, then bolted for the shoreline.
Already, she could hear the waves of Lake Superior break against the rocks and recede back into the tumultuous bay. The crisp May air had awoken something in the water, a restlessness that latched onto the shore. The wind thrust the current up onto the cliff 20 feet above the surface.
Sierra was curious to witness the strength of the waves and feel the weight of the water. The minute she reached the rugged edge, cold spray soaked her youthful face and her fitted brown coat. It felt like home. Years of growing up along the rocky shore had taught Sierra about the unpredictable current – the powerful force that moved just below the surface.
There was something magnetic about this place. Basalt cliffs rose out of the earth in Tofte, Minnesota, forming dark walls of rock that loomed above Lake Superior. In places, the cliffs towered hundreds of feet above the water. She had come here often. 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 had class early the next morning. Still, she craved these nights on the lake. These interludes under the stars.
In southern Minnesota, it just wasn’t the same. No matter how nice it seemed in the center of town, the smell of manure drifted on the breeze. The flat farmland stretched in every direction, and it yielded to a rolling hill here and there, only to give way to more soybean fields. She would drive through the day or night to get back to this place. She did it every time the lake called her home.
Standing on the rocky terrain high above the lake, 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 was determined to get to the water. As she did on every visit, Sierra grabbed ahold of the single rail that led down a steep incline. Cautiously, she lowered herself onto the rocks below.
A tall wave curled against the side of the cliff, soaking 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. The air temperature wasn’t a degree above 40, putting the water well below freezing. She watched, as the current rippled back down into the bay.
“Nice one,” she said.
She knew it was risky to climb the Lake Superior shoreline alone, but a tall recess was hidden underneath the cliff. From there, the rock-lined shore stretched out over Lake Superior in a miniature peninsula. It was her favorite place to sit and stare up into the stars.
The gradual climb to the peninsula was slick. Enough waves had washed up on the cliff that trickles of translucent water tumbled through the 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 peninsula, using only moonlight to guide her. Then she sat upon the rocks, utterly soaked, and stared out at the moody 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 lift her face.
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 had to be the one to issue this gentle reminder. When college became too stressful or life became too burdensome, she reminded herself to look up. To lift her chin. To face what lay ahead.
Hearing her voice muffled against the turbulent waves, Sierra lifted her face to the sky. Millions of stars glistened above her.
She counted more stars than she could see in her college town, even more than the countryside had to offer outside of Northfield. Sierra knew the sky in the north was a true dark. 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. Taking in the vision, she was reassured that the universe, her universe, was constantly expanding.
Her father 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 Milky Way in his only daughter too.
A daddy’s girl, Sierra had been crushed when Phillip’s life went dark. But she could be sure of one thing. If her father’s soul 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 stone slippery under her fingers.
When she made it to the top of the cliff, Sierra headed straight for the lodge nearby. It was within reach, and aside from warmth, it harbored a hidden secret – a wooden box that her father had left behind.
Sierra’s body quivered with intensity. Her cap 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 room her father habitually reserved. 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 was 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 passed 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.
“Babe?” A broad-shouldered man with a sculpted beard stepped into the passageway, and he mistakenly took Sierra by the arm with one large 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 dripped with tenderness.
“You’re not Liz,” he said, lifting his hand. His touch, gentle as it had been on her skin, sent a fiery rush of warmth into Sierra’s chilled arm.
“Uh, no.” Sierra stared absently at him, and tried to conceal a shiver. “Let me get out of your way.”
As he gazed into her face, the pupils of his eyes seemed to deepen and take on a richer color, a vivid green.
They stood there at a loss for words, regarding each other with curiosity. She was beginning to feel numb, but he was a vision of a different kind. Behind his beard, which was carefully shaped, his face was youthful. His expression glowed in the soft light of the lodge lanterns that were posted outside each door. He wore a forest green sweater that traced the muscles in his arms and dark jeans with a flashy 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 her thighs.
“I shouldn’t be here,” she said. If she stared at him long enough, she might melt in comparison. Sierra bent down and reached for the corner where her father had supposedly kept a small box, tucked in a covey hole at the bottom of the woodbin.
A short, stocky man hurried by, but he turned to look at her. “Excuse me, miss?” the staffer said. “Are you a registered guest?”
“Well, I –” Sierra stuttered. She dropped the box on the wood-planked path, watching as a keychain tumbled out onto the ground. A piece of paper drifted to her feet. “No, not exactly.”
“What do you think you’re doing?”
The guy in the sweater turned, so he now stood beside Sierra. He watched the staffer, listening intently to each word.
“It’s just that I –”
“Look, we’ve had an issue with unwanted visitors on the property. If you can’t show me you’re a guest, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“Wait a minute.” The guy in the sweater held an open hand in the air. “Why are you working so late? Did someone break into the property?”
“I don’t know,” the staffer said. He spoke gruffly. “Is this something I should be concerned about?”
“No,” Sierra said. She stared boldly at the lodge staffer, but the guy stood there defiantly. She glanced at the man in the sweater, wondering if he found her suspicious.
His eyes met hers, and he raised an eyebrow with a bemused expression.
Sierra weighed her options. The staffer wasn’t going to move. This guy was fire to her ice, and the richness of his voice both irritated and intrigued her. Inside his condo, a yellow-orange glow hinted at a comfortable thermostat and a burning fire. What did she have to lose? Placing her hand on his chest, Sierra pushed the man through the open door of his condo and stood in the living room with him in a flirtatious air. She glanced back toward the doorway, cuing the staffer to leave. “Nothing to see here.”
The staffer waved his hand dismissively. Then he scurried back in the direction he came.
Once he was out of sight, Sierra took her hand off the man’s chest and put it timidly in her coat pocket. “I have to get out of here,” she said, glancing back toward the door.
“You’re frozen, and you need to warm up. Come on, I’ve got a fire going.”
“But I was just –” Sierra glanced toward the spilled contents of the wooden box on the ground outside, as he gently pulled the door closed.
“And you are?”
“I’m David,” he said. A look of humor shone from his eyes. “Now that we got that out of the way.”
David walked further into the room, taking Sierra by the hand. It was all she could do not to close her eyes in an intense physical reaction when his large, warm palm enclosed her slim, bluing fingers. David led Sierra across the tidy, rustic room to a large couch in front of the fireplace.
“I’m soaking wet,” Sierra said. Instead of sitting on the couch, she found a spot on the floor in front of a blazing wood fire.
“Let’s get you warm.” David lifted a plaid afghan from the back of the couch and draped it around her shoulders, tucking the blanket in close around her sides.
She looked up at him in an air of protest, but then her body shuddered. Realizing she had pushed herself too hard, she gave in to his kindness.
“Did you fall in?” David had a soft look on his face, the corners of his lips teasing his mouth upward in a smile. But he laughed, beside himself.
“Right,” she said. She wasn’t sure what to make of his kindness, and she wondered if she should make a run for the car. Still, he had a warmth about him that went beyond the shadows of firelight dancing on his face. She thought she could trust him, and she laughed in spite of herself. “No, I just went down to the rocks.”
“Down to the rocks?” he said, 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 wouldn’t understand.”
“It’s my dad.”
“Is he okay? Is he still down by the lake?
“No. My father died.”
“That’s terrible,” he said, putting his hand on her shoulder. “How?”
“There was a fire,” she said. Caught off guard by David’s directness, Sierra was struggling 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 out what she was trying to say.
“… Look up.”
He bent his head slightly, looking into her eyes.
“Okay.” David reached his long arm behind her, grabbing another blanket and setting it over her legs. “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 –”
“From my fiancée,” he said. “It might be a little big on you, but it would be something.”
Sierra blushed. “Won’t she care?” She made a mental note to herself.
“She’ll survive,” he said. “If there’s anything she really wants back, I’ll just have to track you down.” David passed her a look.
“Okay,” she said, still unable to make it more than five minutes without shivering. “If you’re sure.”
David went to the bedroom in the suite and rifled through the closet. When he returned, he gave Sierra a sweater and a long skirt, and he attempted to go about his own business while she changed back in the bedroom.
Sierra didn’t know where his fiancée was, but she didn’t have the nerve to ask. She felt bad enough taking the woman’s clothes, even though she could admit she wouldn’t mind walking a day in her Muk Luks. The night had taken a turn she didn’t expect, but she was relieved when her arms and legs began to warm underneath the dry fabric from a stranger’s wardrobe.
Sierra came back out and stood in front of the fire – her body warming beneath an oversized sweater and skirt that draped down to the floor. She tried to anticipate what David was thinking, and get ahead of him no matter what move he made next. When David walked up to her, he handed her a mug with steam swirling from the top.
“Green tea,” he said. “It’ll warm you up.”
“Thank you,” Sierra said, surprised. She held the mug, letting the steam from the tea warm her nose. She realized his fiancée could be nearby. There were plenty of reasons to stay up late in this place. Beyond the constellations and the Milky Way, there were long hours at the hot tub and late food service nearby. His fiancée could be back any minute. “Maybe I should go.”
“You never even said why you came.”
Sierra didn’t respond. Not wanting to seem rude, she took a sip of the tea. Then she thought back to the woodpile outside, and the cubbyhole that hid her father’s smallest possessions. She must have looked toward the door, because he realized it too.
“Something happened outside. In the wood pile.” David searched for her eyes, and the vivid green of his own were almost impossible for her to ignore. They were bright with curiosity. “Let me get your things for you.”
Sierra set the mug on the table. If David wanted to see what was hiding in the woodpile, she had to get there first. They both moved to the door, and she tried to slide in front of him.
David beat Sierra outside. He picked up the keychain, squatting down near the woodpile. Sierra looked on anxiously, as 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.
He held it up to his eye, looked at two images, then smiled up at Sierra. His smile was disarming. “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 had drifted to the floor. “What’s that?”
David lifted the aged sheet of paper, turned it around, and studied it. “It’s a sketch,” he said.
“A what?” Sierra wasn’t sure she heard him right.
“A drawing,” he said. His cheeks flushed red. “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. She’d always known about the wooden box, but her father said he only filled it with his most prized possessions. With the treasures he wanted to pass on to his children. “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?”
David read the signature out loud. “Phillip Welsh.”
. . .
© Copyright 2016 by Melissa F. Kaelin