“I’M LOSING IT, MEEKA.”
My West Highland White Terrier sneezed in response. Most likely she was agreeing with me, but she was also mad, so I couldn’t be sure. She loved car rides, which to her meant around town, getting out often to meet people. Five hours crated in the cargo area of my ten-year-old Jeep Cherokee made for one angry pup.
Had we gone fifteen miles yet? I forgot to check my odometer against that last sign. It had probably only been five. All I knew for sure was that I’d been driving on the two-lane country road through Wisconsin’s Northwoods for so long, a funhouse effect had settled in. The never-ending tunnel of pines, oaks, maples, birches, and other species I couldn’t identify was not my normal. I was used to row after row of houses crammed close together. Row after row of trees, not so much.
After another couple of minutes, we passed a sign so small I almost missed it: Whispering Pines 5 miles.
“We’re almost there, girl. Less than ten minutes and you’ll be running your little legs off.”
My phone rang, and my mom’s face gazed at me from the phone in the holder clamped to the air vent. I reached a finger toward the answer button but froze before touching it. I told her I’d call when I got to Gran’s. Guess she thought I should be there by now. I was twenty-six years old. When was she going to stop micromanaging my life?
The phone rang for a fourth time then went quiet. I clenched my hand into a fist and waited for her inevitable re-call. After a minute and no ringing, I relaxed and silently vowed to call her once I got to the house.
Up ahead on the right, the sign indicating the beginning of the village limits appeared. I slowed, checked that there was no one behind me, then pulled to a stop. The impressive wooden marker had to be at least ten feet wide and eight feet tall, the logs on either side were a good foot-and-a-half or two in diameter. It appeared to have been hand-carved by an artisan rather than machine-lathed.
Welcome to Whispering Pines
A symbol was etched into the wood below the date—a circle with a pentacle in the center and a crescent moon flanking either side. When I was little, I thought the symbol represented the sun, moon, and stars. Now I knew that it was the Triple Moon Goddess symbol and represented the Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Whispering Pines, Wisconsin had been founded by followers of the Wiccan religion and to my knowledge, Wiccans still made up half the population. A narrow four-foot by two-foot plaque hung from the bottom of the sign and read, Blessed Be – Enjoy Your Visit.
The welcome sign brought forth an unexpected flood of memories. I was ten years old the last time I’d been here, but I remembered that sign like I’d just seen it yesterday. Not only had it been a signal to me and my little sister Rosalyn that we were mere minutes from Gran’s and Gramps’ house, it made me feel good. I’d liked the idea of being blessed.
I continued down the road, remembering happier times with my grandparents, and almost missed my turn.
“It’s the first right past the welcome sign,” my mother had reminded me numerous times, despite my assurance that my map app would get me there. “Be sure to stay on the left fork after you turn, Jayne, or you’ll end up at that campground.”
She’d said ‘that campground’ as though it was inhabited by a colony of lepers.
A quick glance as I passed showed that approximately half of the campsites were full. Whispering Pines’ tourist season started in six days with Memorial Day weekend. Every spot would be full then. Every hotel room and rental cottage booked. My plan was to do what I could with the house and head back to Madison early Friday morning before the highways clogged with holiday traffic.
As the landscape changed from dense forest to a clearing, the edge of the lake house came into view. I stomped on the brakes and jerked to a stop, not quite ready to see it yet. I debated for a minute about whether I’d be able to do this then let the car creep forward. Most things from a person’s childhood look smaller when seen as an adult, but in the sixteen years since I’d last been here, the house seemed to have grown. The seven-bedroom, nine-bathroom home had an enormous footprint, taking up almost half an acre. The steel-gray cedar siding and white trim were severely weather beaten. Winters in the Northwoods could be brutal, and the house looked like it had struggled to survive the last few.
“She hasn’t done a thing to that house in years,” Dad had warned in his email from … whichever Middle Eastern country he was currently searching for buried civilizations in. “We’re not going to get anything for it. Empty it and do the bare minimum to get it on the market. The sooner we get rid of it, the better.”
But as I stared at the house I hadn’t seen in sixteen years, a sense of nostalgia flooded me. This was my grandparents’ home. Despite my parents’ refusal to remember, I had warm-n-fuzzy memories of being here.
“Don’t worry, old girl,” I told the house, dismissing my father’s orders. “Nothing a few screws and a fresh coat of paint won’t fix. I’ll take care of you.”
A sudden wind blew in off the lake, making the trees sway as though waving or bowing. Or nodding with approval?
Meeka barked from her backseat prison, snapping me fully into the present.
I pulled forward and parked in front of the garage. As soon as the door on Meeka’s crate was unlatched, she burst free from the SUV like a flare from a gun. She ran once around the car then raced in big circles around the perimeter of the near quarter acre of lawn, barking at invisible pursuers and burning off the energy built up from the five-hour drive.
As I watched her, laughing at her antics, another gentle breeze blew through. The air smelled earthy, like pine trees with a hint of fish, and the sun sparkled off the rippling water. I closed my eyes and faced the sun where it hung in the western sky, letting the rays soak in and warm me. An unexpected sense of serenity filled me and for the first time in months, I felt my shoulders relax and drop from their permanently hunched position.
I hadn’t wanted to be the one to pack up the house, certain it would be too hard to be around Gran’s things. Rosalyn had finals this week at UW Madison, and her summer job started next week. Mom was always too busy with the spa to take any time off. Dad was, well, he was out of the country like always. Since I’d been unemployed for the last six months, Mom and Rosalyn decided this task was mine. Now that I was here, with the fresh air and sun on my face, there was literally no place else in the world I’d rather be.
Next to the boathouse on my left, was the pier. Didn’t it used to be much longer? Rosalyn and I used to run the length of it and, shrieking, jump into the lake. I had a sudden need to dangle my feet in the water. I’d taken three steps down the pathway of fieldstone pavers set into the grass when Meeka began to bark. Not her playful hey, a squirrel bark, but her red-alert hey, something’s wrong get over here quick bark.
“What is it?” I snapped, as though expecting the little terrier to answer, and then sighed. I hadn’t gotten a good night’s sleep in weeks and exhaustion had finally caught up to me, making me cranky. Now that I had started to relax, that’s all I wanted to do.
Still, I turned toward the far right edge of the property. No, that wasn’t accurate. The property spread out over ten acres. About two of those acres were taken up with house and lawn. The remaining eight or so were wooded with huge pines and a sprinkling of deciduous trees, currently covered with the bright green leaves that signaled the return of spring. Rebirth and renewal. That’s where Meeka was having her fit, over by where the lawn met the tree line.
Concerned now, I jogged across the grass . . . which was in desperate need of fertilizing and weed control. I mentally added gardening to the list of chores that I suspected would be as long as my arm in a day or two.
As I got close to Meeka, she sat but still barked.
“This better be important.”
Then I saw what she’d found. Definitely important. Five feet away from my dog lay a body.