I look toward the gas station. After a few moments of staring at the outline of the clerk behind the counter, he moves to push a button. The pump resets and I fill the tank.
When I’m done, I walk slowly toward the store, wiping my sweaty palms on the front of my denim shorts, and then I straighten my long, dark ponytail. I pull the door open; a bell above it clangs loudly. A twentysomething man, leaning against a magazine rack, idly flips through a Guns magazine. He rubs the bristles on his chin as he eyes me critically. The conversation that was transpiring between the clerk and the rough-looking patron leaning against the counter abruptly ends with the bell. I ignore them all and move to the aisle that’s filled with cheap bottles of wine and liquor.
I pluck two bottles of red and a bottle of white from the shelf, and then turn back toward the counter. They’re all watching me. I hesitate for a second, staring back at them. The clerk has a skeptical look in his eyes. Without glancing away, I defiantly take a bottle of inexpensive vodka from the shelf, adding it to the others in my arms. The bottles clink together in protest. When I reach the counter, I push them onto it.
“I had eighty dollars on pump one,” I state clearly, before selecting a pack of gum from the stack beside the cash register and laying it next to the bottles.
The clerk stares at me for a moment; his eyebrow arches in challenge. “You sure you’re old enough to be buying alcohol. Lemme see some I.D.” I relax. He’s not some backwoods hick ready to abduct me. He’s actually sort of handsome in an outdoorsy, I-kill-my-own-food kind of way. His eyes show no wrinkles around them, so he might be my age, 24, but his beard makes him seem older.
I pull my wallet from my purse and hand him my I.D. He studies it for a second before he takes off his camouflage baseball cap and scratches his short, dark hair. His strong arms are covered in heavy sleeve tattoos—this can’t be his only job because no one gets arms like that by hanging out in a gas station all day. “What brings you to the U.P. from Chicago, Violet O’Shea? Business or pleasure?”
“Uhh...pleasure—vacation,” I lie and eye the bottles of alcohol on the counter. “A friend of mine lent me his house for a few days. I’m just going to lay by the lake—read a little—veg. ”
He pauses in his assessment of the bar code on a bottle. The man next to me straightens a little—stiffens. “Your friend gotta name?”
“Yes.” I nod, pretending to play coy, but all of a sudden I’m back to being uncomfortable.
When I’m not forthcoming with that name, the clerk says, “Well, looks like you’re either having a party or a funeral, Violet.” He smiles at the bottles in front of him.
“Something like that,” I reply, mirroring his wary smile. “How much do I owe you?”
He puts his hat back on his head and begins to scan the items into the register. “Where are you staying? What lake? Is it around here?” the clerk asks casually, his blue eyes glancing at me.
“Why?” I ask in my best don’t-eff-with-me tone. “You thinking of stopping by?”
The clerk frowns. “Ned and I could check on you. It can get scary up here when you’re all alone, eh, Ned?” he asks his friend next to me with a lift of his chin.
“Eh, Clyde.” Ned nods sharply. “Scary.”
“Who says I’m alone, Clyde?” I ask and glance out the window. I see two men in white wifebeaters and camouflage cargo shorts by Mattie’s truck taking an interest in it. It’s nearly impossible for them to see anything inside of it because the windows are almost opaque. Suddenly, the truck’s alarm goes off, scaring the bejesus out of the one nearest the vehicle, causing the other one to double over with laughter.
Clyde growls, “Travis, go tell those two idiots to leave the truck alone!”
The man by the rack closes his magazine, stuffs it back on the shelf, and shuffles toward the door. Once outside, he says something to the two by Mattie’s truck before they all move away from it to light their cigarettes at a safer distance from the gas pumps. The truck’s alarm goes silent a few moments later.
My focus returns to Clyde as he asks, “You might want to add some sunscreen to this. You look like you burn easily, especially if you’re out at Nee-Ba-Naw-Baigs Lake.” He watches me, like he’s assessing my reaction.
I glance outside at the overcast sky. “It looks like it could rain soon,” I reply.
His frown turns darker, “Still, you can never be too cautious up here, especially on that lake.”
I shrug, “Okay, let’s err on the side of caution then.”
He doesn’t smile as he adds the sunscreen to the total. The register dings and Clyde mutters, “One twenty sixty-six.”
I pay him after he puts my bottles in a brown paper sack. He hands it to me, but doesn’t let go. “You take care now, Violet,” he says, his eyes bore into mine. The bottles within the bag bang together. When I pull a little harder on it, he lets go.
“Thanks,” I manage to say before I turn and walk to the door. Outside, I pause as Travis and his wifebeater clad friends walk toward me. I shift the bag to one arm; my other hand goes to my purse to scout for my mace.
The engine of the truck roars to life and the passenger-side window opens a crack. SOA’s voice shouts loudly, “You coming, sweetheart?”
The men in front of me stop. My voice shakes, “Yeah, babe. I got you some gum.” I walk past Travis who watches me like I’m his next meal. When I make it to the truck, the door automatically unlocks and I climb inside, placing the bag on the passenger seat next to me. I pull out the vodka and take a large swig. I gasp; the liquid burns a trail to my belly.
“You shouldn’t consume alcohol while taking your medication,” SOA scolds. I try not to think about how truly bizarre it is to be reprimanded by a navigation system.
I let out a shaky breath. “I’ll stop taking my medication then.” The engine revs on its own and the truck backs up from the gas pumps on autopilot. As it pulls away from the gas station, I ask, “So-wah, are we going to Nee-Ba-Naw-Baigs Lake?”
“Some locals refer to Matteyo Dillinger’s lake by that name,” SOA replies.
“Why? Does it mean something?” I'm afraid of the answer.
“Nee-ba-naw-baigs is Ojibwe; it means water spirits. Some of the locals believe the lake is haunted.”
“Why would they think that?” I ask.
“That information is classified.”