Something was wrong. The cabin was dark. Arthur always turned on the table lamp by the bookcase and the front porch light whenever he left home for any period of time. Now, only a full moon enabled him to see the outline of his cabin from the top of the gravel driveway.
He cut the engine, killed the lights, and stepped out of the truck. Arthur crept through the woods, taking a path that brought him to the side of the cabin closest to the lake. The absence of any vehicle in the driveway told him that any intruder had come by boat or on foot.
The reflection of a flashlight from inside the cabin hit the window above Arthur's head. He ducked and slipped around to the back of the house. Down by the shoreline water lapped against a flat-bottomed jon boat tied to the small floating dock. Arthur risked a peek through the kitchen window. A large figure wearing a black hoodie was going through his desk. He sprinted down to the dock and waded into the shallow water next to the boat.
Arthur glanced up the hill. The cabin was still dark. The water was freezing. He reached in his back pocket and went to work. Five minutes later he stumbled out of the lake. A light was on in the cabin. The hooded figure rounded the corner of the house and started toward the boat. Arthur hit the ground and tried to roll away from the moonlight.
The man – it had to be a man judging from his size and gait – moved quickly onto the dock and reached for the bowline.
"Find anything good?"
The intruder jumped like he'd stepped on a snake. Arthur moved closer. It was a man, probably twenty years younger, three or four inches taller, and fifty pounds heavier than Arthur. Six years of military service, including two tours in Afghanistan, had taught him there was no such thing as a fair fight. Someone always had the advantage. Only a fool thought otherwise.
The man turned and Arthur kicked him in the crotch. The trespasser howled and dropped to the ground.
"I asked you a question."
Arthur watched the hooded man raise his head and struggle to his feet. Arthur punched him in the throat.
"Two days before Christmas! Two days, and you're out robbing lake cabins. Really?"
He watched the man struggle to speak, struggle to breathe. Probably had a crushed larynx. So what. Merry Christmas.
Arthur yanked the man's wallet from his back pocket and studied the driver's license. He lived on the other side of the lake. A neighbor robbing a neighbor. Lovely.
"Get out of here. Now."
The man wobbled onto the dock, one hand massaging his throat, and half-fell into the boat. Arthur launched the wallet Frisbee style across the black water.
He watched the boat peel away from the dock. It would be close. Even with the moonlight, it would be too dark to see the small hole he had gouged in the floor under the back seat.
The night was still. Arthur listened to the fading sound of the jon boat slapping the water. A moment later the engine coughed, sputtered, caught again, and died. The sound of something thrashing in the water, maybe a paddle, maybe a drowning man. Hard to call for help with a smashed larynx. He waited. The thrashing stopped. Silence reclaimed the night.
Arthur turned away and walked up the hill to his cabin.
Melissa had told him back in January that she wanted a divorce. He'd been stunned, although in retrospect he shouldn't have been. She had often joked about how she always dreamed of marrying a doctor but had settled for a veterinarian. Except it wasn't a joke. Her accusation that he loved the dogs and cats he treated more than he loved her had baffled Arthur. He had never thought of love as a contest.
They, or rather she, had used a high seven-figure inheritance to build a five thousand square foot McMansion in a gated community. Arthur had been ashamed and embarrassed to live in a home he couldn't afford, with a wife he couldn't support on her terms. His partners at the small veterinary clinic teased him about being a kept man. It hurt.
The papers had arrived the first week in February. By then he was living in the cabin, an hour away from Melissa, but a world apart. He had signed the documents, put them in the mail, and crawled into bed at three o'clock in the afternoon.
Arthur was surprised how quickly things moved. He had always heard or assumed, that divorces moved at a glacial pace. Before he knew it Melissa and her lawyer had emptied his pockets and sent him a copy of the final divorce decree. A month later Arthur sold his stake in the clinic to his partners and embarked on his retirement twenty years early.
It hadn't always been bad between them. They had talked about having two children but stopped at one after Melissa swore she would never endure another pregnancy. Patrick was a healthy baby, well-loved, and completely spoiled. Arthur was happy. His family was complete.
In the early years, they vacationed at the cabin, a rustic twelve hundred square foot structure that Arthur had inherited from his grandfather. Patrick loved exploring the woods, fishing along the shoreline, and going out in the canoe. When the weather was warm Melissa would pack a lunch and they would spend an afternoon swimming and relaxing in a quiet cove.
Patrick had been the one to name it the Christmas cabin. Every year Arthur took off the last week in December so they could spend the holiday at the cabin. The woods and lake were pristine, unspoiled by the summer crowds.
There was no television, but there was a radio, board games, and a bookcase that was overflowing. And on Christmas morning there was more of everything. Then it all stopped.
The cabin was boring, Melissa said; Patrick wants to stay in town with his friends, she said; why can't we go skiing instead, she asked. Arthur couldn't afford a ski resort, so they stayed home. The inheritance killed what was left of their marriage. Arthur lost his son when Melissa bought him a car for his sixteenth birthday. Patrick no longer had time for animals, nature, or Christmas cabins.
It had been a hard year, but Arthur had learned to embrace the solitude. He filled his days with chopping wood for the fireplace, cutting grass, keeping the driveway cleared, and doing small repair jobs around the cabin. Fishing and a small garden kept his grocery bill manageable.
He had just filled the wood box and was drinking a glass of tea when a familiar white Lexus turned into the driveway.
What the hell?
Arthur waited as Melissa stepped out of the vehicle sporting a new hairdo and an outfit that probably cost more than his first car.
Someone's got a new boyfriend. Probably her lawyer, poor guy.
"I tried to call, but you didn't answer."
Arthur said nothing. He had canceled his phone service months ago.
"Patrick's spending the holiday skiing in Vail with friends. You're welcome to stop by Christmas Eve to see him before he leaves."
He said nothing.
Arthur watched his ex-wife shift her stance and toss her hair. He swallowed a laugh.
"You were a good father, Arthur. I'm..."
"I'm still a good father, Melissa. Patrick knows where I live. He's welcome here anytime."
She nodded and turned to go.
The look on her face was unreadable. Hope mixed with a dash of shame or pity?
"Patrick's welcome here. You are not. Don't come back."
He waited for the Lexus to disappear before hurling his glass at the nearest pine tree.
Witch! Takes everything I own and then stops by to rub it in my face. Time to put up No Trespassing signs and a chain across the driveway.
Arthur got up Christmas morning determined to ignore the calendar and fill the day with hard work. Physical exhaustion was the key to surviving a joyless holiday without a tree, decorations, gifts, or family. It was also the key to dealing with the likelihood of living in the cabin for the next thirty or forty years before dying alone and forgotten.
He worked straight through lunch and quit around three o'clock. Arthur was opening a can of soup when he heard a car door slam.
Arthur had told himself not to get his hopes up. His son wouldn't have time to stop by the cabin.
He opened the door and stepped outside. The smile on his face died.
"You? What the..."
"Yep, me, back from the dead. I brought Christmas dinner for the most miserable person on the planet, next to me."
Arthur watched the man lift a large container from the back seat of his truck and walk past him into the cabin. He laid the food out on the kitchen counter and grabbed two plates from the cabinet.
The smells brought memories rushing back and destroyed Arthur's willpower. He filled his plate and sat down, unsure whether to expect an explanation or a beating.
The man shrugged.
"I got laid off four months ago and can't find work. I'm still getting unemployment, and I've got some savings, but Bella needs medical treatment. I don't have the money for that. This cabin, it felt so lonely, so sad. It felt like my home. I didn't take anything, but only because there was nothing to take. Man,this place is spartan. Anyway, I wanted to do something to try to set things right."
Arthur got up and refilled his plate.
"She's my dog, a 10-year-old Golden Retriever."
They finished eating in silence. Arthur stared at the man he'd tried to kill.
"Thanks for dinner. I still hate you."
The man nodded.
"We'll never be friends."
Arthur watched the man place the leftovers in the container and carry them out to his truck.
"I'm a vet. Bring Bella over tomorrow morning."
"I told you..."
Arthur waved him off.
"Won't cost anything. We can eat those leftovers for lunch."
The man drove away and Arthur went back inside. He felt sleepy from the meal and the day's work. There would be more turkey tomorrow. And Bella.
He glanced around the small cabin. So many years, so many Christmas's with his family. This wasn't the best Christmas he'd ever had, but it wasn't the worst.
# # #