The only ones who know

January, 2017 — Grass Lake Charter Township, Jackson County, Michigan

Patrick Leonard walks restlessly around the big common room of the Cedar Knoll retirement community. At this time of the afternoon on a Wednesday there would normally be at least a few people in here relaxing or working on small projects. Today, however, it is apparently quite clear to everyone that Patrick is getting one of his mysterious Visits, and everybody knows that it is best, at these times, to be elsewhere. There is always plenty of work to do, after all.

He stalks from one threadbare sofa to an equally ratty overstuffed chair. The chair is cockeyed, out of place, like somebody bumped into it and didn’t bother putting it back. The big room’s floor is ancient linoleum—real linoleum, not vinyl—with area rugs all over the place, but the couches and chairs mostly just stand on the bare linoleum. It’s easy to let them get out of place, and if you don’t keep on top of it pretty soon the whole place looks like a dump. Grasping the back of the big ratty chair, Patrick gives it a push back into place and feels his shoulder muscles twinge. Getting old.

Yes, but only getting there. Anybody at Cedar Knoll sees what really old looks like every day, and Patrick knows that isn’t what he sees when he looks in the mirror. What he sees is a man who isn’t going to be running any foot-races, but who, if he were self-deluded enough, might believe that he had one more adventure left in him. But self-delusion is a kind of stupidity, and Patrick Leonard has never drawn a stupid breath in his life.

Tight-lipped, Patrick moves to the room’s curving south wall that is entirely composed of windows and stands looking down at the two halves of I-94 in spite of the cold he can feel radiating from the big wall of glass. In the winter, the windows on both ends of this big wall are covered by insulating sheets, but the two center ones are left uncovered in the day time. People like to be able to see out. The insulation and the big fireplace that Patrick can hear crackling behind him keep the room habitable, although never particularly comfortable.

The big old windows are extra-heavy plate glass, made to help the room look cheerful for the moneyed potential clientele of long ago, but just as carefully made to be practically shatter-proof to prevent accidents and thus defend against the clients’ lawyers. The glass doesn’t flex much even in the worst wind storms but you can still hear the wind through them, and right now it sounds pretty bad out there. Looking down the steep hillside to the south, Patrick sees that I-94 is completely covered in places, with no signs of plowing except whatever occasional vehicles have done with their tires, forcing their way through the drifts. The clouds have broken up and no new snow is falling just now, but the wind is blowing a white haze across the road: loose snow that will fill those ruts in fifteen minutes.

As Patrick watches, a pair of headlights looms from the west and resolves into a big semi, and then a convoy of three semis, all carrying oversized loads eastward. Probably going to the Rouge River plant, where there’s been so much new activity lately. The convoy also has a pair of big black SUVs traveling with it, one in front and one behind. The SUVs have yellow flashers going on top, but they aren’t there to warn motorists about the wide loads for their own safety like they would have been in the old days. The SUVs are armored. They are there to warn motorists to get the hell out of the way and not impeded the convoy’s progress. Anyone too slow will get unceremoniously pushed off the highway. And if there’s anyone left in the world who still thinks they can take exception to that kind of treatment, they will find out that the SUVs have more weapons than just their big steel bumpers.

Leonard watches the convoy roll past, the big rigs with their large, multi-tarped loads doing no more than thirty miles an hour on the snow-covered highway. While he has been glad to hear of the renaissance of the vast Rouge River plant in the last few months, this convoy’s armed and armored SUV escort is a reminder that the world outside is a dangerous place, and probably still becoming more so.

A lot of people, he thinks grimly, would do well to remember that fact.

“Patrick,” Lois’s voice rings across the room. “Your guest is here.”

He turns toward the room’s double entry doors and sees that Lois has dressed in her best aging-earth-mother-priestess-wannabe drag: a long, flowing dress with shawl, all hand-woven on one of the looms that have gone into production recently. The woman absolutely cannot do anything without making a statement out of it. And today’s statement is, very clearly: Patrick, you should be more polite to your old friend. By now everyone at Cedar Knoll is well aware that Patrick gets a visit from a ghost from his past every year or two, and that he is not happy about these visits, yet never decides to simply forbid them. And that he wants these talks to be private.

And there is Bill Geisler, standing next to Lois, looming head and shoulders over her diminutive frame, looking like a ghost indeed. It’s been more than a year since his last visit, and he hasn’t changed noticeably. Geisler still looks like he did thirty years ago: as though he would be more comfortable as an aging priest in a country parish somewhere, or teaching English Lit at a community college.

After ushering Geisler into the room, Lois finally makes herself scarce and Patrick looks at his old partner.

“Well, hello, William,” Patrick says, “I would ask what you’ve been up to, but I guess I know. I see you’ve got the Folder of Doom there.”

Geisler approaches, sets the old manila folder that he has always used on a round coffee table that Patrick is standing next to, and the two men silently shake hands.

“So what is this time, buddy?” Patrick asks after Geisler stays quiet longer than he would have expected. “Here, sit down.”

They take their seats on a pair of 1950s-modern chairs that go with the round table, and Geisler still remains quiet for so long that Patrick is starting to wonder what the hell is wrong. He knows that Geisler is well aware that he doesn’t like these visits, but that has never made him especially shy in the past.

Finally, Geisler speaks.

“Do you remember those articles I found,” Geisler says quietly, hunched a little as he sits on the edge of his chair, “from that local Brooklyn newspaper about the animal deaths in the autumn before—our thing?”

Brooklyn, Michigan is a small town twenty miles to the southwest of Ann Arbor, and less than ten miles north of Devil’s Lake. Years ago, Geisler found stories in archived copies of a small local newspaper there—the Exponent—about a horse that died under unusual circumstances, and a number of sheep. The reports were made just a few weeks before ‘our thing’: the murders that attracted their attention and ended up drawing them to the encounter at Waldron Road that ended two men’s lives, along with Patrick and Geisler’s careers.

“I remember,” Patrick nods, but can’t help frowning. Geisler has never called it ‘our thing’ before. Specifically, the word ‘our’ makes Patrick uneasy. The word would seem to imply that there is another thing, from which “our” thing must be distinguished. “Is that what this is about?” He indicates the folder without touching it. “More animal stuff? So what?”

Looking down at the folder, Geisler takes a long time to answer. Outside the wind gusts harder, rattling the soffits under the old one-story building’s big roof overhangs.

“Yes,” Geisler says. “Four dogs in one story, and a man in the other. Both involving water, with no mention of—anything else.”

Patrick shrugs, and Geisler looks up at him.

“These stories were published three weeks ago,” he says.

“Oh. Fuck.” Scowling, Patrick holds up his hand as though to defend against an attack, but then stands up convulsively from his chair, and turns away from his guest. He walks back to the big windows, squinting at the brilliance of sunlight on snow.

Pass over twenty miles of these brilliant cold fields almost due south from here, and you would find Devil’s Lake. Or it would find you.

“God damn it William,” he says turning around. “Why can’t you leave this alone? You didn’t get enough of it in ’87? I don’t know what it was and I don’t care what it was, but we killed that goddamn thing! Leave it alone! Have a life,” he gestures widely to indicate the whole of Cedar Knoll, “like this! This is life, William. Why can’t you just do this, and leave that damn thing alone!”

Leonard has approached him again and now stands a couple steps away. Geisler looks away from him, down at the tabletop and doesn’t reply for a while. They have had this conversation before, several times over the years. Except it’s not exactly a conversation at all, because he never knows how to reply. When he asks himself the same question—Why can’t you just have a life?—in the privacy of his own nocturnal hours, he sometimes invents answers, none of which have the power to convince him for very long. But one understanding has grown more clear over the years.

“We did not kill it. You know we didn’t.” He looks up at his old partner. “It’s going to start again, Patrick. It’ll kill people, and they’ll send men out looking for it again. Men who don’t have any idea what they’re going up against, just like we didn’t.” A trace of the old horror passes over his face at the memory of seeing Dantonio’s blood arcing through the air, Johnson’s chest crushed. Geisler shakes his head to clear his mind and looks at his old partner.

Leonard looks down at him, his aging face worried.

“We can’t let that happen, Patrick,” Geisler tells his old partner. “We’re the only ones who know.”

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