Excerpt: Destroying Angels

Prologue and Chapter One

Halloween, October 31: 20 years earlier

The harvest moon cut thin shadows through the trees, giving just enough light to see by and yet not be seen. She clutched the small bundle close and kept climbing. It was crucial to escape the sound of the water and its repetitious rhythm, which was too much like breathing.

Finally she reached the place: a grouping of caves high above the water on a narrow bluff. She entered the deepest cave, her flashlight leading her farther and farther back into the damp darkness. When she could no longer walk upright, she knelt down and put the bundle beside her. She started to dig with a small shovel that had a slightly bent blade. Within a few minutes, she was satisfied with the hole’s depth, and reached for the bundle. As she picked it up, a corner of the towel fell open.

Even in the dim light, she caught sight of a small drop of blood. Just the size of a penny. She thought she’d been careful to press down hard and firmly. Quickly she folded the towel back in place and began to push the dirt into the hole. The blood was a surprise.

1

Wednesday, November 1, Present day

I was driving east on Water’s Edge Road and studying the November sky as if my life depended on it. No doubt I should have been studying a map instead. Right now the sky was a translucent blue, like that blue you sometimes see in milk, or the blue glint along a knife’s edge. Either way, I was probably late for my first assignment at the newspaper—an obituary—though the time was hard to discern since the truck’s clock was busted. And I’d forgotten my watch again.

Earlier, heading north up the Door Peninsula, I’d watched the sky deepen to a navy blue, then suddenly rupture with light and turn a distant stand of birches metallic. And I’d missed this road east.

I’d like to think it was the light that brought me here to Door County. Days like today mostly convinced me of that.

As I crested a hill in my battered red pick-up truck, the restless stretch of green water that is Rowleys Bay rose into view. I stopped the truck abruptly across from the last gravel drive before the bay, and let the engine rattle. The wind was picking up, sending slivers of cold air into the truck. I cranked up the heater and stared at the gravel drive.

I couldn’t see a house from the road and, of course, there was no address on the tin mailbox. A forbidding tangle of evergreens, the foresty stuff of fairy tales, overhung the gravel drive. This had to be the place, because if I drove any further east on Water’s Edge Road, I’d end up in Rowleys Bay a chilling prospect on this brisk and crystalline afternoon.

What had my new boss, Jake Stevens, editor-in-chief of the Door County Gazette, said when giving me directions out here? “You’ll know it when you get there.”

I had shrugged nonchalantly. “Yeah, I’ll find it.” I had yet to lose my city veneer.

Ten years of adjunct teaching in English departments at five different Chicago colleges had taught me the value of cultivating a tough exterior. When the purple-haired student high on LSD had threatened me during my lecture on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, I had told him to get out or I’d throw him out. When a rowdy group of hockey players wouldn’t shut up during a discussion about gothic novels, I had flung an eraser at their heads. I presented myself as unflappable no matter the challenge, because in truth, just about everything frightened me.

“Now listen here, Leigh Girard,” I’d tell myself resolutely as I was running from Chicago’s Union Station to catch the elevated train to one campus or another, “you don’t have time to be afraid.”

Little did I know then how much those words foreshadowed my future. After ten years of hopping from college to college and trying to honor a profession that didn’t honor me, I had decided to chuck it all—leave my husband of 15 years, leave Chicago for Door County, Wisconsin, and start a new career as a journalist.

Door County seemed an arbitrary choice. We’d vacationed there often in the summer. I knew it, at least as a tourist knows anyplace, and most importantly I could afford it on my meager salary. I’d found a cottage to rent in Egg Harbor. Situated on the Green Bay side of the peninsula between Carlsville and Fish Creek, Egg Harbor was one of the smaller villages: population 183. If I hadn’t landed the Door County Gazette job, I have no real idea where I would have gone. I hoped in all this change I’d find what was left of myself.

Because within this change was a part entirely involuntary, that scarred all of my life as it had been before. Cancer will do that yank you out of your life. Not that I’m dying—at least not presently. I’m just minus one breast—the left one. Instead, I have a six-inch, fuchsia slash of scar tissue that is still angry looking. It cuts across my left side from underarm to sternum. And when I look closely, I can see my heart beating. A faint but steady throb pulsates against this new thin tissue of my skin. I guess I’m a modern version of those Amazon women who supposedly cut off a breast so they could be better markswomen. A friend told me about the Amazons after the mastectomy. “Is this supposed to make me feel better?” I found it hard to believe any woman would do this to herself on purpose, even a mythical woman.

I pulled into the narrow driveway, eventually wondering if there was an end to it, much less a house so far into the trees. When I was about to turn around, I glimpsed a pale green ranch house encased in aluminum siding that looked like a giant breadbox with windows. So much for the Door County charm and my envisioned ambiance of limestone cottages with stained-glass windows and hand-carved doors. Adding insult to injury were four plastic Halloween pumpkins perched on the porch railing. Their ghoulish grins were only likely to scare an interior decorator. Someone had tried to add a touch of native charm by setting a stone fence that encircled the house.

My task was to interview Mrs. Eva Peck about her husband, Carl Peck, who had died yesterday. The Gazette had a tradition of writing feature stories on newly deceased residents, instead of standard obits. No matter what Door residents had accomplished in life, in death they gained a sort of celebrity status.

“Obits give you good exposure to the ‘Door’ ways,” Stevens had quipped to me, smiling at his own cleverness. He was a forties-something, hippie-type with a greying ponytail and a six-foot-two body that was surprisingly lean and toned. He was also one of Door County’s many poets, though you’d never guess it from hearing him talk.

“Good one,” I had responded, more to the irony of an obit as my first assignment. An irony I couldn’t or wouldn’t share with Stevens or anyone at this point.

Not sure how late I was for this interview, I slammed the door of my truck as a kind of announcement that I had arrived. According to Stevens, Carl Peck had died quite suddenly of liver failure. For about 40 years, he had been the resident artisan/carpenter for the county. He did mostly restorations, including many of the peninsula’s older buildings, and in particular, the Cupola in Sturgeon Bay. However, by the looks of this place, his restoration work didn’t seem to extend to his own house.

“A real craftsman,” Stevens had told me. “You have to see the beamed ceiling he put in my den.” Stevens lived in a restored 1875 limestone cottage near the entrance to Newport State Park that he never tired of mentioning.

“Top of my list, after I get my navel pierced,” I had thought, not sure if beamed ceilings were the Door County equivalent of etchings.

A woman was waiting expectantly at the front door as I approached the house. This led me to believe I was definitely late.

“Come in, please,” she said, before I could even identify myself. “It’s getting cold.” She held the aluminum storm door open for me.

She was a big-boned and heavy woman with pendulous breasts that even her black, roomy dress couldn’t hide. The exposed flesh of her neck and upper arms formed in solid rolls on her body, as if each layer was insufficient to cover her. At one time she might have been called buxom or zaftig, depending on who was doing the leering. But her body had lost even soft definition; now she was merely thick. Her bleached blonde hair showed an inch of dark roots, had been forced into a halo shape, and then lacquered with hair spray. It resembled a steel web, intricate and impenetrable. Under her mud brown eyes hung pockets of skin. I noticed at least one contrast to her dutifully black mourning clothes: a green rhinestone pin affixed to the top of her dress. The stones formed a heart and glistened with a hard, iridescent light.

Ever since I’d entered this modest house, a scent I couldn’t quite place was assaulting my keen sense of smell. I hoped it wasn’t coming from the abundant Mrs. Peck.

“Mrs. Peck?” I extended my hand. “I’m Leigh Girard from the Gazette.”

“I know,” she said, offering a firm handshake and leading me into the living room. “Don’t mind the house, it’s a bit of a . . . a mess.” She stopped and looked around the room as if she had just realized where she was. Her eyes glossed over with tears. “I’m sorry.” She gestured toward the room with a wave of her generous arm.

I looked around the room, not wanting to watch her emotional struggle. White doilies in intricate crocheted patterns covered blonde Formica-topped tables; green and yellow terry towels protected the couch and chairs, all a crushed lime green that matched the shag carpeting. The navy leather recliner seemed to shine with polish. If there was a mess here, it was in Mrs. Peck’s head.

“Please, sit.” She sniffed, and pointed to the chair covered in yellow terry cloth. As I sat down, I noticed a small-framed photo of a little girl on the adjacent table. She had soft brown hair and was wearing a blue dance costume threaded with silver. Her feet were placed in a rigid ballet position—one turned sideways, the other pointing front. The girl looked about five. The scene behind her was this same room where I was now sitting. Except for the terry towels, it hadn’t changed much since the photo had been taken.

“I know this is a bad time,” I began. “So I won’t take long. This must be very difficult for you. But as I explained on the phone, the paper would like to write a feature about your husband.” My words sounded trite and rehearsed. I shifted in my chair, cursing Stevens under my breath for giving me this obit assignment. I had come north to write about harvest festivals, high school musicals, and art exhibits. I’d had enough of sickness, death, and grieving.

Mrs. Peck smoothed her dress over her amble thighs with the palms of her hands. She was wearing a thin, gold wedding band. “That’s all right. You have your job to do.” She blinked her eyes to clear the tears. “It was so sudden, and then . . .” She took a deep breath. “But God is guiding me through.” She picked up a black, leather-bound Bible from the table beside her and opened it. I watched her read silently to herself.

As she closed the book, her mouth formed the word, “Amen.” She lifted her eyes and looked at me. They seemed a shade darker. “You’re new at the paper?”

I had witnessed the erratic early stages of grief before: the ricochet of emotion from staunch denial one minute to full realization the next. I had yet to get used to it.

“Yes. In fact, your husband’s obituary is my first feature assignment. For the Gazette, that is.” I didn’t want her to think her husband’s remembrance was in the hands of a novice reporter, even though it was.

“And you’re from Chicago, I hear?”

Stevens had warned me that everybody in Door County knew everybody else’s business. How had he put it? ‘If you fart, we all know about it.’” I glanced down at my notebook and answered, “A suburb.” Now I wanted to change the direction of our conversation.

Mrs. Peck wasn’t quite ready for that, it seemed. “So many people from Chicago end up here. Most don’t stay, though. It’s too isolated for them. Not enough to do.” As she crossed her thick legs at her ankles, her skirt rode up. She tugged on it like a nervous virgin. “I lived there once, in Chicago.” She smiled briefly.

“Why didn’t you stay?” I was genuinely curious.

“I married Mr. Peck. He wanted to move up here. Say, can I get you anything? A cold drink, perhaps?”

“No, I’m fine, thanks.” I cleared my throat. “Now, about Mr. Peck.”

“Here’s the picture for the paper.” From the pocket of her dress, she took out a 5 x 7 black and white photograph and handed it to me. The grainy picture showed a man dressed in an Army uniform, who looked about 20. His eyes stared straight at the camera, as if daring anyone to look away. He resembled a young Harrison Ford.

“Mr. Peck was quite good-looking,” I said. “When was he in the service?”

“During the Korean War. He didn’t like to talk about it. But he was decorated with the Purple Heart.” She smiled so broadly, her fleshy face seemed to swallow her eyes.

“You don’t happen to have a clearer picture, do you? Maybe something more recent? The newspaper needs a sharply-focused photo to get the best reproduction.”

“That’s his best picture,” she said flatly. “I’d like you to use that.”

“Okay.” I wasn’t going to argue with a grieving widow. It was obvious that this was the way she wanted people to remember her husband. I slipped the photo inside my notebook. “Now, where was Mr. Peck born?”

“Chicago.” She took a deep breath and looked out the picture window. “I was hoping someone from the paper would come by before I did anything.”

The statement puzzled me. “What do you mean, Mrs. Peck?”

She leaned forward, and I could see where she hadn’t blended her makeup along her corpulent neck. Her naked skin was the pasty hue of oatmeal.

“I’m going to be filing a lawsuit against the doctor and the hospital.” She leaned further forward and whispered, “They killed Carl.”

I waited for her to say more but she just sat there, her muddy eyes expectant upon me.

“What makes you think that? I understand that your husband died of liver failure.”

“That’s what they say. They’re claiming that he was an alcoholic. That he drank himself to death. That’s not true.” Indignation brought a flush to her cheeks. “He was a good man. He hardly ever drank.” She set her jaw. “It’s a cover-up. He went to the hospital complaining of chest pains. They didn’t listen to him. While he was there, he had a heart attack. And it’s their fault. He should have been on monitors. They should have done tests.”

She stopped and took a deep breath. “I wouldn’t leave him, you know. Even after he was gone. I sat there and held his hand and prayed. His eyes stared right at me. And his mouth was open as if he wanted to tell me something. I waited and waited. They tried to get me to leave, those nurses and doctors. But I wouldn’t. I couldn’t leave him alone with them. Not after what they did.”

“Mother, that’s enough.” In the doorway stood a woman who was a younger, much thinner version of Mrs. Peck, except her hair was so black it made her skin look transparent. She wore bone-hugging jeans that emphasized every crease and crevice of her lower body. Yet the jeans looked more painful than provocative. She came over and stood next to Mrs. Peck. “My mother is upset and doesn’t know what she’s saying. You need to leave now.”

“No, Sarah,” Mrs. Peck protested, “you don’t understand. You weren’t there.”

“Mother, I think you should go lie down.” The daughter leaned down, and took hold of Mrs. Peck’s elbow.

“But I want her to get it right. For the paper!” Mrs. Peck pulled away.

“Didn’t I ask you to leave?” The young woman snapped at me.

Mrs. Peck’s face went crimson as she hoisted herself out of the chair. “Sarah, I won’t tolerate . . .” she began, and then stopped.

Sarah had put her hands on her hips and was glaring at her mother, daring her to finish what she had begun to say. Mrs. Peck’s mouth moved back and forth, as if she were chewing on the unsaid words. Then she looked past her daughter and left the room. Before I could say anything, Sarah Peck followed her mother from the room.

So much for Door County hospitality and my first interview.

As I stood up to leave, my empty notebook fell on the floor. I bent down to retrieve it, and saw what looked like brown clumps of dry mud under the chair. Some of the clumps shone with a gooey substance. Apparently, Mrs. Peck’s meticulous housekeeping didn’t extend beyond the superficial. As I left the gravel drive and turned west on Water’s End Road, the late autumn sun blasted the windshield with light, and a roll of nausea overtook me. I reached for my purse. The familiar migraine symptom was making its slow, sure way across my forehead. Keeping my eyes fixed on the road, I rummaged in the bottom of my purse for the pill box. With one hand, I opened the clasp and took out two red and white capsules. I threw my head back and downed the pills. No water necessary, two pills at the first signs of a headache.

In the distance, field after field opened up before me. Another reason for coming back here, I reminded myself: these clean, uninterrupted vistas where I could see great distances, as if the future was visible before me just down the road.

I gazed up again into the turbulent sky. The clouds were moving fast. It would probably rain again tonight, though who could be sure. I drove toward Highway 42 under a canopy of changing light. It wasn’t until I made the left turn on Highway 42 and headed south that the migraine eased, and the realization hit me.

“Stew, some kind of stew.” That was the smell in Mrs. Peck’s house.

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