Fiction by Zachary F. Gerberick
By the time the three had reached the cabin, Hunter could feel the first waves of opiate withdrawal—a subtle restlessness unraveling inside his chest, spreading like a parasite.
On top of this, he was broke, unemployed, and just two years shy of thirty. A few weeks back he had lost the IT job his younger brother Danny had set him up with, and the week after that he’d spent the last of his savings on rent for his run-down studio apartment on the west side of Columbus. But things felt different now, parked outside the family cabin with the sun hovering high and the lake the blue hue of a 10 mg Lortab.
Hunter stepped out of his brother’s Mustang with the engine still running and walked up to the cabin. It seemed smaller than he remembered, as though the years were slowly dragging it underneath the damp Adirondack soil. The red cedar siding was wearing down and the dark green paint of the porch was shedding off like a dried layer of skin. Uncle Theo, the sole proprietor of the cabin ever since Hunter and Danny’s parents had died a few years back, had not only stopped taking care of the place, but was also planning on selling it at the end of the summer season. Looking at it now, Hunter thought that if he just had some money, some more time, he’d be able to fix it up right. That maybe Danny could take a few extra weeks off from the Ford dealership and they could team up together—replacing the trim, building a new porch, cleaning out the shed, finishing all the old projects their father had never gotten around to.
“We’re gonna unpack and shower,” Danny said, grabbing his bags from the trunk. “You gonna be all right?”
“Let’s take the Whistler out for a lap real quick,” Hunter told him. “Have Liz unpack for you.”
Liz was Danny’s fiancé, and throughout the ten-hour car ride she had sat silently in the backseat studying for an online veterinarian exam, her petite body leaning over a textbook and a pink highlighter gripped between her frighteningly white teeth. Every time Hunter became excited about the trip, about spending time with his brother after years of only the sporadic phone call, he’d remember Liz was somewhere nearby.
“You two can go on without me if you want,” she said, her voice unproportionally low for her size. Hunter hated how much he liked it.
Danny hit a button on his car key and the trunk crept to a close. “We’ll all go out together. Just give us ten minutes.”
Liz heaved her bag over her shoulder and headed toward the cabin but stopped as she passed Hunter. She touched the sleeve of his T-shirt. “You’re soaking wet,” she said.
There was a ring of moisture stuck to Hunter’s shirt despite the chill he was feeling. He pulled at his collar, allowing some fresh air to fall into his chest.
“Yeah, man. You’re drenched,” Danny said. He stood there for a moment, seemingly waiting for a reply, some sort of explanation, until Liz grabbed his shoulder as though she was reminding him of something, calming him with just the touch of her fingers.
“I’ll meet you guys at the dock,” Hunter said. And then he walked away, to the lake, telling himself he’d be fine, that he’d get through the vacation clean, that the mountains were as good a place as any to wean off.
The lake was quiet, still. The reflection of the clouds crawled on its surface as a deep vulnerability grew in Hunter’s body, something that only existed when the pills were gone, as though his skin had been peeled back for the first time in years. He closed his eyes and forced a smile, used a breathing technique he had learned in rehab a few years back. It was there, at the in-patient program in Louisville, that Hunter discovered he was a little different from most of the other residents, or at least thought he was. At the meetings he’d listened to them discuss their lives, their pasts, how they weren’t loved as children, how they grew up in rough neighborhoods, how their parents were alcoholics and drug addicts, and Hunter would sit there and pretend his own parents were drunks, or that he had been raised on the wrong side of town, or that his father had beaten him as a child. He would imagine this and wonder what it’d mean to have that kind of excuse, that kind of justification for the life he’d been living.
He moved over to the boathouse, which was leaning some toward the center of the lake. He stepped inside. The Whistler sat alone in the dark. His father had attached a 30cc trolling motor on the back before he passed away, giving it just enough power to cruise around the lake although they still kept oars onboard. Hunter found some old gasoline next to the fishing rods, gave it a whiff, and filled the tank. He pushed the boat out into the water and yanked the recoil rope and after a few goes the engine came to life. He sat down at the back with his right hand on the tiller and steered east, tracing the coast of Lake Oseetah. He checked the time on his phone, fifteen minutes had passed. He’d come back to get them later.
He headed to the inlet, navigating toward the cabins resting alongside the feeder creek that branched off from the Mohawk River. For a moment there he felt like a voyager, a pioneer exploring uncharted territory, the unknown. A loon cried out and Hunter looked west, saw its black head, its red eyes, cutting up out of the water and then quickly back under. He twisted the accelerator and drove in its direction. The water became shallow and he could hear the lily pads and cattails brushing against the bottom of the boat. As he waited for the loon to resurface, he spotted a young man baiting up a casting rod across the way. He looked just like Danny: the sleek hairstyle, the wide shoulders, the sharp jawline. Hunter couldn’t look away from the man. He stared at him until the skeg and propeller snagged the bottom of the lake, bringing the boat to an immediate stop and sending Hunter forward, to his stomach, his forearm scraping hard against the oarlock. He cursed and the young man on the dock stood up and shouted to ask if he was all right, but Hunter only continued swearing under his breath. He turned around so the stranger couldn’t see him and wrenched the pull start over and over. But the motor wouldn’t catch. The loon laughed out again while Hunter sat there, slowly floating toward the man. After a moment, he took hold of the oars, laced them through the locks, and began the long journey back to the cabin.
He was unable to feel his shoulders by the time he made it to their dock. Danny, who was already waiting for him, walked over to the algae-covered stepladder and grabbed the boat, easing it against the siding.
“You couldn’t wait ten minutes?” Danny steadied the Whistler while Hunter stepped onto the landing. “And what the hell did you do to the motor?”
Liz walked down the steps, carrying a couple of drinks in her hands. Hunter pushed the punt back into the boathouse until its nose ran hard into the back wall. “I was trying to close in on a loon,” he said. “I needed someone steering.”
“Then you should’ve waited.”
Liz reached the two brothers and stared at them for a moment. She asked what was wrong.
“The engine,” Danny said, slamming the overhead door.
“What about it?”
“Nothing,” Hunter told her.
Liz nodded and handed a bottle of beer to Danny and a mug to Hunter.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“Just some tea,” she said.
Hunter took the tea from her, which was in his mother’s favorite Far Side coffee mug. It had a drawing of a deer with a target on its chest. “Bummer of a birthmark,” the caption said. Hunter could remember his mother sitting on the porch in the early mornings drinking her coffee, the sun still stuck behind the cabin, slowly rising.
“We don’t use this one anymore,” he said.
“Come on, Hunter.” Danny explained the mug and Liz apologized, told them she’d wash it out and put it back in the cupboard where she found it. Hunter set the tea down and looked out at the lake. The sun had fallen out by then but its afterglow still breathed onto the water. The three of them stood there quietly. A train rifled down the nearby tracks that hugged the easterly side of the lake. Hunter could feel the sounds. The horn. The pistons. The vibration. His entire world shaking.
That night, Hunter tried to get some sleep. He lay in his bed and listened to the soft droning of an argument in the room next door. He rolled onto his back and attempted to lie still, but after about four seconds his body would backfire. Instead of fighting it, he’d move his arms and legs as though he were making snow angels into the covers, surrendering to the sickness. It’d be a few more days before things started to get any better, and other than getting high there wasn’t much he could do. Masturbation was all that gave him any kind of relief: about thirty seconds of stillness before the restlessness would seep back in. So he shut his eyes and pictured Liz in his mind. She was the last person he wanted it to be, but she was the best option for the night. It made the process easier; she was real to him, not just some random porn star. He pictured the pastel shade of her skin, the curve of her tiny body, the tight breasts. He thought about the things he’d do to her. The things he’d teach her. How she could learn something from an older man like himself, who just then finished, wiping his hands clean on the polyester window curtain to the side of the bed.
The next morning the three stepped out of the Mustang near the base of Rondaxe Mountain. Liz had on a pink LL Bean backpack stuffed with peanut-butter sandwiches, bottled waters, and a first aid kit, while Danny had their dad’s old 35mm rangefinder around his neck. Hunter wondered if their father had given it to Danny before he passed away, and he wondered why—even though Hunter wasn’t particularly interested in photography—his father hadn’t offered the camera to him, the eldest son. He watched as Danny weaved in a new roll of film like some man he barely knew.
Liz led the two brothers toward the mouth of the forest where hemlock and ash canopied above them. A labyrinth of yellow birch roots twisted and curled below their feet, spiraling along the dirt path and over top the bedrock. Hunter was cold underneath the shade despite the warm air. There were goosebumps on the surface of his skin, yet even with the chill the sweat didn’t stop. He could feel beads tracing down his arms and ribs like fingers caressing his skin.
They slowly made their way up the trail, Danny stopping every so often to snap a photograph of a tree or a root. About a third of the way through, Hunter’s muscles had started to give out on him, his lungs stinging whenever he inhaled deeply. Liz skipped up beside him and gently touched his back. It was strange at first, feeling her hand and knowing what he’d done the night before. He tried his best to push the thought from his mind, and he was good at that, forgetting things he didn’t want to remember.
“It’s beautiful out here, isn’t it?” she said.
And it was. Hunter knew it beat the hell out of detoxing back home in his shitty apartment.
“Did Danny ever tell you about my Uncle Joe?” she asked. “He was a big-time hiker, backpacked the entire Appalachian Trail all by himself.”
Hunter shook his head. “Never heard about him.”
“Or maybe it was the Allegheny. Either way, he did it all after he got sober. He was a heavy drinker when I was a kid but then he started going to meetings and all that. Really saved his life.”
Hunter immediately knew what Liz was doing and hated her for it. He tried his hardest to ignore her, to let his anger subside, but it was difficult. He asked her how long she had been planning on telling him about her uncle’s sobriety.
“What do you mean?” Liz said.
Hunter laughed. “Forget it.”
The three of them eventually made it to the peak where the forest opened up some. Hunter stood there under the blue sky that mothered over Lake Oseetah. He could just make out the dark green of their cabin, the way it sat there as natural as the pines that surrounded it. Looking out at the vista, at the cabin, Hunter felt a burning sadness, something lost.
A few feet to his left, Danny was stepping off the trail to get a photo of the lake and walked straight into a barberry bush.
“God damnit,” he said, backstepping away.
Liz asked what was wrong.
Liz told Danny to come over to her. She examined the wounds then dug around in her backpack. Hunter started to laugh.
“What?” Danny asked.
“I don’t know. I was just thinking of when we were playing with the Costellos’ dog that one time and you stepped on that big-ass thorn.”
Danny slowly grinned while Liz sprayed his wounds with antiseptic.
“Thing was massive,” Hunter said.
“Hurt, too,” Danny said. “But you got it all screwed up. We were playing Stickfight at the lot by the fire station, not messing around with Rocco.”
“I’m pretty sure we were with Rocco,” Hunter said.
Danny explained how the Costellos didn’t even have a dog at the time, and then Hunter told him he was wrong.
“I was the one that stepped on the fucking thing.”
Hunter shook his head.
“We were playing Stickfight, Hunter. Trust me. Then you told me I was going to get rabies. Made me bite down on some dirty washcloth before you yanked the thorn out.”
Hunter laughed, then Danny followed. The spruce branches were wrestling above them, a group of pintails sounding out somewhere nearby.
“But you’re still wrong,” Hunter said in a soft voice. “And it was tetanus, not rabies.”
On the hike back down, Hunter’s muscles had become a good sore. The sweat was still there, but he was able to let his mind ignore it. That’s when Liz stopped in front of him. She was whispering, pointing at the small creek that flowed down into the Mohawk. Alongside the shore stood a bullmoose. It was young, his antlers only knobs of brown velvet, its small dewlap swaying some in the wind. Danny carefully pulled out his camera and began taking pictures while Liz placed her arm around his waist, smiling. Hunter watched—the moose reaching its long neck down into the current, the muscles on its back warped and strong. He was thinking about his mother. How out of all the years she had spent at the cabin, out of all the decades she’d visited the Adirondacks, she had not once seen a moose. At the beginning of every vacation she would say, “This is the year, I can feel it.” And so as magnificent as the animal was, bending down and quenching its great thirst, Hunter couldn’t help but feel he was cheating her, his mother, taking away something that wasn’t his to begin with.
Unable to fall asleep or stop his muscles from moving—his muscles that no longer felt like his own but someone else’s entirely, like a child’s, full of the worst kind of energy—Hunter craved a mind-altering substance. No, he didn’t want to go back to the Oxys, but a few dozen Vicodins would’ve been nice for the trip. A little something to keep his heart down, let his body rest. He turned it all over in his mind and felt the crushed pills firing through his nasal passages, the bitter drip falling down his dry throat, his body beginning to slow down, his thoughts starting to fall away, taking him to a place he very much enjoyed going, where he could sit there and do absolutely nothing and enjoy it more than anything else in the world.
Naked, Hunter stood up and walked out of the bedroom, palming the knotty-pine walls as he made his way down the stairs in the dark. He entered the first-floor bathroom and excavated the medicine cabinet. Inside was a bottle of six-year-old antibiotics prescribed to his uncle and an unopened, dusty pint of cough syrup. Hunter downed half the bottle then sat at the kitchen table and closed his eyes.
Tomorrow was Friday, and Hunter, Danny, and Liz had tickets for the 10am performance of the Thendara train robbery show. He remembered what it was like when the family would go when he and Danny were boys: Mom and Dad holding hands sitting at the back of the Pullman, offering the boys their space, Danny bringing along his plastic cap gun just in case the robbers got out of hand, and the Loomis Gang, bursting into the train with their steel pistols and black bandanas. But what Hunter remembered most was the joy, the stillness, he felt during those vacations. Where had it gone?
Hunter slumped back into his chair—sweat gathering underneath his thighs onto the slick mahogany seat—and felt his left foot touch something soft beneath the table. It was Danny’s backpack. He bent down and took hold of it, dug through it the same way he’d dig through his father’s workbag looking for his anxiety medicine or some loose cash. Tucked in the very back was a manila folder, and inside was the deed to the cabin. He skimmed the document, holding it up against the little bit of moonglow that was fighting through the clouds. At the bottom of the paper was Uncle Theo’s signature, and next to it, Danny’s.
Hunter was still at the kitchen table the next morning. He wasn’t sure if he had fallen asleep or not. There was a red sun above the lake rising through the pines, and a puddle of sweat underneath his bare ass. He grabbed the rest of the cough syrup and hurried upstairs, and by the time he reached the top step, Liz was just leaving the bathroom. “Oh,” is all she said. He would’ve given her an explanation, crafted some sort of story to justify his nakedness, but he found himself unable to speak. He went straight to the toilet instead, and vomited—bile, the color of bone with the sweet aftertaste of NyQuil. He kicked the door shut and turned on the shower.
“You all right in there?” Liz asked.
“Are you sure?”
There were footsteps in the hallway, then whispers.
“Hey,” Danny said through the closed door. “We’re supposed to be leaving for the robbery in fifteen, but if you aren’t feeling up to it—”
“I’ll be ready,” Hunter interrupted.
“Christ, I’m sure, Danny.”
Hunter stepped into the shower and let the warm water erase his cold sweat. He thought about the deed. He wanted to feel anger, knowing the serenity it would give him—so much easier than sadness—but there was none. He reached his hand around to the sink, grabbed the cough syrup, and finished off the bottle.
The Mohawk and Malone Railway coursed alongside Route 28 and through Old Forge, a hamlet that rested on the border of the Fulton Chain. Where the tracks ran into town was the Thendara Station. The three parked across the street and stepped out of the Mustang. The car ride had been mostly silent. Hunter dozed off for what felt like a minute or two and woke to Liz and Danny whispering in the front seats.
As they approached the train, Hunter began to realize the trip was over. He could feel it. The way Liz and Danny refused to look at him, the same way his parents would whenever they noticed he was under the influence. Hunter watched as the couple boarded the train holding hands and wasn’t sure whether he wanted to hit them or hug them.
He tapped Liz’s shoulder. “Did Danny ever tell you about how he used to bring his cap gun to the show?” he asked.
Liz shook her head without turning around to face him. “Nope.”
The three made their way to the coach car—pairs of seats on each side of the aisle. Stumbling some, Hunter sat down by himself on the left side of the train while Danny and Liz each took a seat on the right. Dozens of children, parents, and grandparents packed into the remaining seats. A few minutes passed, until a middle-aged woman wearing a long black skirt and a salmon-colored blouse entered the Pullman and began to speak.
“The year is 1892,” she said in a deep staged voice. “Your president is Benjamin Harrison and there are only forty-four states in America. The locomotive you ride now is heading east to a still blossoming Essex County. And let me remind you, there are no cars, no planes, no jets…just trains, and they’ll only take you to where their tracks lie.”
The train started up and Hunter listened to its breath rise and fall, the individual pumps from the pistons gradually transforming into a singular hum. As it picked up speed, scything a route through the dense brush, the nearby pines blurred while the mountains behind them stood tall and clear. The children onboard had begun to shout by then. They rolled over to the right side of the car, watching the bandits racing on horseback outside, materializing from the thick woods and galloping toward the tracks.
Staring out the window, Hunter remembered how he would protect Danny from the robbers when they were kids. How, once the Loomis Gang came onboard, Danny would beg to switch seats so the bad guys couldn’t get to him. He looked over at Danny from across the aisle, saw his hand still clasped around Liz’s, and he knew that at some point throughout these last five years they had completely branched off from one another. That the boy sitting next to him was no longer a boy, no longer the brother he used to be.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were on the deed?” Hunter asked.
Danny looked over. “What are you talking about?”
“I just wanna know why you didn’t say anything.”
The train slowed to a stop. The little girl sitting in front of Liz was jumping up and down on her seat, shouting with excitement.
“We’ve been going to that cabin our entire lives and you couldn’t even tell me you’re selling it?”
“It’s falling apart for God’s sake,” Danny said.
“We could’ve fixed it up together.”
The Loomis Gang came aboard right then, darting up and down the aisle. They pointed their pistols and their rifles into the air, warning the passengers to listen up, to be quiet, to follow their demands.
Hunter raised his voice some. “It just needs a little work.”
Liz looked as though she was shaking her head and Hunter watched her for a moment to be certain. He asked her what was wrong as the train breathed back to life, slowly moving west now. A fifth bandit, a red bandana covering his mouth, had walked into the Pullman guiding a young woman, her hands tied behind her back. She was shouting. “Oh, please! Oh, please! Oh, please!” Some of the children laughed. Others yelled. A few wept.
“You can’t,” Liz said. “You can’t fix it up and you won’t. Look at yourself, Hunter.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’re high. You’re always high. That’s why Uncle Theo didn’t put you on the deed. That’s why you won’t fix up the cabin. That’s why Danny never wants to see you anymore. How do you not understand that?”
A lady decked out in an old-fashioned teal bonnet, her chest covered with pearl necklaces, turned in her seat, shushing the three of them.
“I’m done being nice to him,” Liz told Danny. “I tried to help but it’s pointless.”
Danny attempted to calm Liz but she ignored him.
“And you haven’t been doing much yourself.”
“What do you want me to do?” Danny asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “He’s your brother.”
Hunter had to look away then. Not from Danny, but from Liz. The disappointment—even after years of becoming accustomed to it as though it were just another part of daily life, like brushing his teeth or putting on clothes or going to sleep at night—was too much for him to handle.
“I told you not to worry about me anymore,” Hunter said. “That’s over. It’s been over.”
Danny laughed. “You puked in the bathroom less than an hour ago and you’ve been stumbling around ever since. I mean Christ, Hunter. What do you want me to do here?”
Hunter tried to form his next words. Something to prove he’s right and they’re wrong and that somehow everything will be okay again. But what else was there to say?
Outside the window, the Mohawk flowed along the tracks like a blue vein of earth. He had been planning on asking Danny to go fishing there in the evening. Hunter traced the water east with his eyes knowing it would eventually drain into Oseetah, knowing that the water he’s staring at now will soon be the water that touches the crooked dock of their cabin.
“Whatcha looking at over there, fella?”
Hunter lifted his head.
The robber in the red bandana was staring him down. “I’ve got an idea,” he said, his voice throaty and high. “How bout you stand on up so I can pat ya down?”
Hunter laughed. It was all he could do. He rose to his feet, slowly, as sunlight scraped by the clouds and in between the brush. The entire train’s eyes were on him.
“That a wallet?” the robber asked. “You got any gold pieces in there?” The man took his pistol out of the holster and gradually raised it to Hunter’s chest. The children stood on their toes to watch, grinning with anticipation.
Hunter thought about stealing it, the gun, and turning it on the bandit, but instead he let it sit cold against his sternum. Then he shut his eyes, and the pulse of the train swayed his body as though it were rocking him to sleep. Rocking him back to a time before the pills and the jobs and all the responsibilities. Back to a time when the entire family could simply unwind on the dock. And standing there—barrel to the chest, eyes closed shut—that’s what Hunter thought about. Dad kneeling down as though in prayer, knotting a spinner onto his silk fishing line. And Mom, perched up in a foldout chair with a book resting in her hands and the kind of serenity on her face that Hunter had been searching for ever since he was a kid. And at last, him and Danny, sitting with their feet in the water, the cool Adirondack wind coming in from the east, blowing away every concern, every burden, until nothing was left but themselves, and the lake, and the cabin—still standing tall after all these years.
Before handing over his wallet, Hunter moved his gaze toward Danny, struggling to determine whose turn it was to play the hero, whose turn it was to be the protector, but neither brother seemed too interested in playing the role.
Zachary F. Gerberick is currently a MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Florida State University. His short stories and essays have recently appeared or are forthcoming in River Teeth, New South, among other journals.