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Heart of the Woods: Northwoods, Book 1 by Holland, Grant C. (1)

1

Brandon

“Yeah, the beast must have weighed almost a thousand pounds seeing the way it mangled that SUV leaving a crumpled hood and a shattered windshield. We had to close down the highway for about an hour to clear the shards of glass. Of course, I wouldn’t give Larry any credit for having a clue about what was happening until it hit him.”

Brandon smiled across the table at his buddy Gabe Peligo. Always having a graphic new story on the way was one of the best advantages of counting a first responder as best friend. Gabe told the tales with gusto. He loved his job. In a small community like Arrowhead Falls, he had training in EMT, police, and firefighting skills.

Brandon didn’t mind gruesome tales that bothered others with weaker stomachs. In fact, he thought he would have happily been a trauma surgeon in another life. He loved the TV emergency room doctors. Unfortunately, neither Larry Liston nor the moose left any vital organs on the road.

Gabe raked the fingers of his right hand through his coal-black hair. “And you won’t believe this next part. Well, maybe you will. You’re a lot more gullible than me.” Gabe winked after the comment. “Anyway, you know Larry and his over-baked idea that he’s still some kind of a star. Those delusions of stardom lead to other crazy ways of thinking.”

The songs of Larry Liston, the pride of one corner of northern Minnesota, were staples on the adult-oriented pop radio station Brandon’s parents preferred when he was a child. At his peak, Larry’s popularity flowed southward in the state of Minnesota. Sometimes, singing the songs was a lot like singing nursery rhymes set to music, but the older fans adored Larry.

Brandon asked, “Is he even performing any more? Or does he just sit up there in that ramshackle cabin on the ridge counting the bills left in his bank account?”

“Search me. It’s been almost eight years since Larry’s last hit, and when I say hit.” Gabe added massive air quotes to his statement.

“Yeah, that crazy fucking loon song. I hate even to bring it up. I don’t need to sing it or hear it on the radio for it to start rambling through my brain.” Brandon shook his head. He knew that the earworm would lodge itself in his mind for the next six hours, maybe the whole damned day.

Gabe continued his story. “Anyway, I was the first on the scene, and other than the mangled front end of the SUV, it looked like both driver and moose escaped relatively unscathed. I breathed a big sigh of relief. Three people were milling around at the side of the road ready to tell all about the collision, and Larry stumbled over his own feet making the story bigger by the second. And then, honest to God, how damned ridiculous, you won’t believe this.”

Brandon sipped his coffee and leaned forward to tease Gabe and ask the key question. “Did he kiss you? He likes younger men.”

“Oh, damn, he would have done it if I’d given him half the chance. I was standing there asking if he thought he’d injured anything, and he practically yelled out, ‘I feel faint,’ and then the bastard collapsed in my arms. The queen couldn’t handle the pressure. She abdicated her throne.”

Brandon clamped his lips shut to stop himself from laughing. “Everybody in Arrowhead Falls knows you’re his not-so-secret crush. Are you the last to know?”

Gabe sighed and rolled his head back. He pounded a fist on the table before glaring at Brandon. “No, I knew that. This little town isn’t nearly big enough to provide the space I need between Larry Liston and me. It was like he wanted mouth-to-mouth or something. I lowered him to the ground, and it was all I could do to keep from retching when I smelled that cheap vodka on his breath.”

Brandon lost control. He couldn’t hold it back any longer. He laughed so hard that the other customers in the Lost Loon turned their heads. “Are you telling me you would have kissed him if he smelled like single malt scotch?”

Gabe smirked. “Yeah, probably.” He raised his mug with his pinky finger pointing high in the air. “Larry Liston will never rise to the rarefied air of my good taste.”

“I’m glad to know your ego is fully intact. You didn’t leave that by the side of the road.”

“Hey! Ego’s not such a bad thing. It’s one of the few things that never fails me. I only worried about it once.”

“You worried about your ego?”

Gabe nodded. “Remember when I told you about playing Tony in West Side Story in college? The crowd was absolutely silent after I died in the end. I expected applause, and I lay there on the hard stage holding my breath, all tangled arms and legs, trying to act stone dead and worrying that I’d fucked up the whole show. Then they roared so loud and applauded so long that the stage director said she thought the noise would rattle the set so much it would collapse right there on the stage.”

Brandon rubbed the straw-colored stubble on his chin. “No exaggeration?”

Gabe gestured holding his index finger and thumb together. “Okay, maybe a tiny bit.” He took a long sip of his latte and asked, “So what does gorgeous blonde Brandon have on his plate for this weekend? Do you have a hot date for Falls Fest?”

“Unless the man of my dreams is still planning to surprise me and call, I’ve got nothing. I’m having Kyle and Elle set up a table at the Fest for promotion, but I think I’m going out on my own to work on finalizing some new trails for the fall season. The business is teetering on the edge of red ink, and I’ve got to do something to give it a bump. New trails can mean a step up on what the competition offers.”

“Be careful when you’re soloing in that canoe. I don’t want you to be the subject of my next call.” Gabe reached up and scratched his head. “But if you needed mouth-to-mouth…”

“You know me. I’m like Smokey the Bear’s best friend on safety. To be honest, my gut’s also still a little messed up about Ryan. I need the space to think and come up with some new ideas. And mouth-to-mouth or lip-to-lip, yeah, that’s a danger zone for us.”

With a sympathetic glance, Gabe said, “Buck up, buddy. That loser Ryan’s old news. It was at least three months ago now. When you broke up with me, it didn’t slow you down for even half that amount of time.”

“You didn’t disappear.”

Gabe started to open his mouth, but he didn’t get the words out before a familiar voice spoke up over Brandon’s shoulder. “Rekindling the romance, boys?”

Gabe ran with the new topic. “As if I had a chance. I’m no more interesting than last month’s roadkill these days.”

Brandon sighed. “Aw, great, I’ve got a flattened fox on the shoulder of the highway as a best friend. No wonder my business is going south.”

Elle Brandeau reached out and ruffled Brandon’s hair. “May I join you? I’m trying to swear off the coffee for caffeine reasons, but I still like to sniff the air.”

Gabe said, “Hey, Elle. One of those empty chairs is for you. Did you ever hear the term decaf?”

“Who knows what they do to it to get rid of the caffeine. I prefer things in their natural state.”

Brandon stared into his mug and wondered how natural it was to drink a beverage harvested on a plantation in Guatemala while sitting in a cabin carved out of a gap in the woods of northern Minnesota. “Seriously, does the lack of caffeine make a big difference on that?”

Gabe sighed. “The two of you are getting way too intellectual for me. I hear that Brandon’s sticking you with festival detail this weekend. I’ll try to stop by and help drum up a crowd. Maybe you need a hot guy holding a paddle for you.”

Standing at six feet tall, Elle was what many would call a big girl, and she carried it well. A nearly constant smile drew even strangers to her like moths to a flame. Stranded in Arrowhead Falls by a deadbeat ex-husband, she worked two half-time jobs. She led canoe tours and took on additional office work for Brandon at Arrowhead Adventures. For a few extra dollars, she waited tables at the Forest Edge Resort. Combined, the income from the two jobs was barely enough to make her budget balance month to month.

Elle said, “We’ve got to do something. I looked at the books yesterday. Our customer numbers are way down since they canceled that stupid show. As pointless as it was, it drew its fair share of stargazers who hoped they might spot a celebrity from TV. I don’t know how many times I’ve run tours with young couples insisting on posing like the Metzgers in the opening credits.”

“A thousand times at least,” said Brandon.

Gabe asked, “Are you talking about Northwoods Voyagers? Did anybody watch that show? They couldn’t even spell it ‘Voyageurs’ with a proper ‘u.’ I turned it off in disgust the first time that hairy one started talking about Prescott Lake as a good spot for gators.”

After elbowing Gabe, Elle said, “He was joking.”

“But he was so damned hairy. I bet he has hair between his toes. I guess they can’t all be like Brandon. He’s so smooth except for the cutest little hairs on his big toes.”

“Oh, Lord, here we go. I’m sure Elle doesn’t need a point-by-point description of my anatomy.”

Elle shrugged and smiled. “You are handsome. Why would I mind hearing the details?”

“Because it would inevitably lead to Gabe dredging up the tired tales of how being raised by my overprotective parents made it impossible for me to make a commitment. He conveniently forgets that 24 is fucking early to commit for life.”

Gabe reached his hand across the table gripping Brandon’s forearm. He twisted the left corner of his mouth into a wicked half-smile. “Hun, I loved every minute of it, and I’m honored to be your BFF. There are no regrets, and you know I’d take a bullet for you.”

“How about a moose through the windshield?”

Elle said, “It sounds like you’re making progress. You’ve put away the switchblades, and oh, wow, that’s right. I heard about the moose crash. Did you get called out there, Gabe?”

“Yeah, I did. You should have seen it. Moose guts splattered across the highway and Larry Liston with a face full of blood.”

“Are you serious?”

Brandon said, “No, he’s not. Zero blood and guts, and Larry was a little too friendly.” He stared down at Elle’s hands folded together on the edge of the table. “Are you sure you don’t want something to drink? They make smoothies here, too.”

“No, I’m good, but I did have one more reason for stopping in. I figured I’d find the two of you here. It’s either here or at Gabe’s in front of the TV.”

Gabe said, “Coffee from the Lost Loon is an indispensable element of life. I can’t believe you’ve sworn off it. What’s the reason for the visit? Do you have some good gossip to share?”

“I’m trying to convince Brandon to change his mind. I need you on my side. Did he tell you what he’s planning to do this weekend?”

“He’s going out for a paddle. Is that any deviation from normal for our golden boy? Sometimes I think he should stop paying rent and live in his canoe. It’s like the Northwoods version of a houseboat, and it’s a whole lot cheaper.”

“He’s going up to Lone Cedar Lake.”

Gabe blinked and leaned forward. “You’re going where? On your own?”

Brandon said, “I think we’ve been through this already. I never did go when you got all worked up the last time.” He knew that Gabe would have serious questions about Lone Cedar Lake, so he’d decided to leave out the detail earlier in the conversation.

“But you know what happened there.”

“Everybody knows what happened there, and it was more than ten years ago now. I think it’s time to bring Lone Cedar Lake back to the list of options for our more advanced tourists. First, I need to check it out and see if it’s still worth seeing and if there’s a good place to pull out the canoes.”

Elle shook her head. After half an hour of discussion, Brandon declared that they had to agree to disagree. He insisted that stopping the financial bleeding of Arrowhead Adventurers was too important. She said, “See, what did I tell you? I need to go for now, but Gabe, maybe you can get through to him. We’ve got a lot of other ideas to drum up business that are less risky.”

Elle stood and leaned over Gabe kissing him on the cheek. She added a hug to her farewell kiss to Brandon and said, “I’ll see at least one of you at the Fest. I’m hoping for both.”

Gabe watched Elle saunter out the door before turning his attention back to Brandon. In a voice barely above a whisper, he said, “Nobody goes up there since that old man drowned. They never did catch the killer, and some say he’s still out there protecting his lake.”

“That’s ridiculous. If there was a crazed killer up there, someone would find out sooner or later. I’m sure plenty of solo explorers have wandered onto the lake since then, and they came back to tell the story to their friends. I’ve looked at old photos. It’s a gorgeous place.”

Gabe leaned back. “Why do you have to be so damned sensible in taking risks. Yeah, what you say makes sense, but still.” Gabe thought about the huge financial risk Brandon took when starting his business, and he made it into a success paying off all the startup costs in less than two years. He was only 24 and recently purchased a house, a small cabin just outside of town. All of his close friends still lived in apartments.

“I’ll be careful of course, and I’ll send you a text when I leave. If I’m not back by sundown, send out the posse. Does that make you feel better?”

“Not really, but I don’t think I have a choice. Whatever happened to the old man’s wife? Didn’t she live out there with him? I thought she was some kind of painter or something.”

Brandon shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve heard a couple of different stories. Some say she moved south to the cities, and others say she died just a few months after him. Going to a place like that with a history is sort of romantic, you know?”

“Yeah, I know your idea of romance. It’s a little like staring at moose guts by the side of the road.”

Gabe sipped his coffee and gazed over the rim of his mug at Brandon. He was easily the best looking guy in town. Inquisitive blue eyes shone from a face of almost milky-smooth skin. The wavy mop of blonde hair hinted at Brandon’s occupation as an outdoor adventure guide.

Brandon said, “C’mon, I even bought you roses for your birthday.”

“That was sweet. Did you ever hear anything from Ryan after he skipped town? It was his loss, and so that you know, I think he’s pond scum.”

“I’ve never heard a word. I thought everything was great. He helped pick out the cabin. I’ve finally finished moving everything around, so I don’t think about him so much. I gave all the clothes he left behind to a thrift shop down in Duluth.”

Gabe reached out and gripped Brandon’s forearm again. “You know, the two of us should go on a crazy road trip weekend together. We could zip down to the cities or even invade Wisconsin. North to Canada? We could do any or all three. Damn, buddy, say yes. It would be a hell of a lot of fun.”

“And I’d end up with your dick in my ass. You really are my best friend, and I can’t sacrifice that for a weekend fling. I’m sorry. I’ve got to say no.”

“I don’t know whether to feel hurt or flattered. One more thing about that trip up to Lone Cedar Lake.”

“What’s that?” Brandon tilted his skeptical head to the side.

“That guy could have turned into a Wendigo. It’s been known to happen. You could end up dinner on some insane hermit’s plate.”

Brandon laughed out loud again. Gabe secretly loved making his friend laugh. Brandon’s joyful outburst was one of the best sounds on earth. “Now you’re talking nuts stuff. You don’t believe in that, do you? The lake could be haunted by ghosts, too, or witches on broomsticks. Maybe there’s a flying saucer perched on a cliff by the edge of the water.”

“Watch out for all of those, buddy. I’m just saying sometimes the truth is weirder than the stories we all make up. I want to see your pretty face around long enough that I can feel less envy when you get old and wrinkled and gray years before me.”

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