The Whisky Blot
Catscratch Island by Evan Helmlinger
As soon as I saw her car outside our family’s cabin, I knew this time my cousin Margo had gone through with it.
She must’ve seen me coming up the driveway; Margo came out onto the porch and waved until my car settled into the space beside hers. I got out, and she smiled and hopped down the steps to give me a hug.
“Patrick.” She wrapped her big arms around me. “I’m so glad you came.”
My cousin was bright, bubbly. She was a new woman.
Inside, she breezed through the kitchen, pointing out what she had just bought for the place: new utensils, a dish rack, a whole set of dish rags—all of it mixed in with what others had brought over the years. In the sunroom, her arm swept over the watercolor paintings she had hung on the wood-panel walls. “All local artists," she grinned.
She led me to the bedrooms upstairs where I’d be staying. “Take your pick.”
I pointed at the second room down the hall.
She snickered and slapped my elbow. “I should’ve known. You used to hide everyone’s toys there. You had all your little stash spots, remember?”
“Sure.” I went in and slid my duffel bag beneath one of the two dusty cots.
“It’s weird,” she said. “It’s a different place without everyone else, without all the kids.”
She was right. I was used to seeing the rich green of summer out the window and hearing the clamor of young cousins running around. That’s what the cabin was: a place where each branch of the family could come together and be together. Instead, encircled by the golden bloom of autumn, the cabin felt hollow.
“Get settled,” she said. “I’ll be downstairs in the kitchen. I hope you didn’t eat yet.” She went to leave but stopped herself and touched my shoulder. “I was afraid you weren’t going to come.”
“I could say the same thing to you,” I said.
I had been planning to stay for the weekend and only packed a few things. Actually seeing Margo at the cabin though, I wondered if I should’ve packed even less.
I came downstairs to two fingers of butterscotch schnapps. Margo handed me the glass and tilted hers forward. “Just like grandma used to drink.” We each took down the liqueur in a single gulp, the syrupy sweetness coating my throat with burnt caramel flavor. I hated it when I was younger and hated it especially now that I was old enough to drink something else.
Margo’s face contorted as she sucked the remnants off her teeth. “That never gets better. I had to keep with tradition, of course.”
She put our glasses in the sink, then spun around and clapped her hands. “For dinner,” she began, a playful grin creeping onto her face. “We have beef tenderloin in the oven. Potatoes and asparagus. A nice red. White, too, if you prefer. If you’d like something stronger before, during, or after we eat, there’s bourbon right behind you. I’ve already dipped into that.” She picked up and wiggled another glass filled nearly to the brim with iceless whisky. “It gets my culinary juices flowing.”
“Wine is fine for now.” I poured myself a glass and sat down at the table. Margo donned one of the aprons our Aunt Susan used to make each summer. One made of a rich blue cotton had come from a dress our cousin Bethany refused to take back after one of the children tossed it into the lake. Another used to be my old dog Maddy’s blanket, from the summer he ran away. The one Margo chose for tonight had bright orange polka dots, repurposed from a hideous blanket someone had left at the cabin hoping it would disappear.
As she cooked, we talked. She asked about my work at the clinic, and I asked about hers at the restaurant. I asked if she had seen our cousin Michael’s newborn; she hadn’t but couldn’t wait. We made vague plans. Only when we exhausted chit-chat did she talk about why she was there.
“How’d he take it?” I asked.
Margo leaned back against the kitchen counter and smiled. “He knew it was over. I made it clear that it was over.”
“What do you think he’ll do now?”
She took a sip of her bourbon and threw her hand up. “Who cares. I doubt another idiot will fall for him, not now.”
“You’re not an idiot.”
She laughed. “I sure am. Staying with that abusive son of a bitch for that long… Jesus. I gave him my best years.”
I let it be. When Margo had called the other week and told me what she was going to do, that she would finally leave her husband of twenty-eight years, well, it wasn’t the first time I had received that call. I didn’t really expect her to be at the cabin until I pulled up.
We ate in silence. Margo had always been an outstanding cook. “A bad meal,” she had once said, “can ruin a friendship or even a marriage.” She meant it as a joke but cooked as if it wasn’t.
After dinner, I cleaned up while Margo put on a record and shimmied around the kitchen, a fresh whisky in her hand. “I love Laura Nyro,” she remarked as she swayed back and forth with each twinkling riff.
“Nightcap?” she asked once the dishes were done.
“Suit yourself,” she said and topped off her glass. “I love it here at night. It’s peaceful in a way you can’t get anywhere else. Like you’re cut off, in some other place where all the BS can’t get at you.”
I went upstairs and closed the door to my bedroom. The music still leaked in from below, and I could hear Margo da-da-da-ing to the song. I pulled my duffel out from beneath the cot and opened it up on the floor. Clothes, a toothbrush, a razor, a screwdriver.
With the screwdriver, I crawled over to the air vent between the cots. The vent cover was ancient, with layers of paint flaking off, but it slid off the wall easily once the screws were out.
I reached back into my duffel bag and pulled out a thin, nickel-plated cigarette case. I gave it a bounce on my palm and felt the weight of its contents shift, then I opened it just to make sure what should be there was there.
There were no cigarettes in that case. That’s what Donny at work had discovered when he went looking for one. I had told him to keep what he found there to himself, but after that, I couldn’t have it near me any longer. When Margo called, I saw the chance to get away, to hide the case, to conceal my obsession.
I pushed the case into the duct and around a bend then reattached the cover. Lying in bed later, I could breathe easily for the first time in a long time.
The next morning, I awoke to the smell of bacon and pancakes. “I want to take the boat out to Catscratch Island,” Margo said while we ate.
“I don’t know, Margo. I was actually thinking of heading out early, maybe try to get up to Eastport before the afternoon.” There was nothing in Eastport, just an excuse. With the cigarette case out of my hands, I wanted to get away from it as quickly as I could.
“Don’t give me that. No, no, we will not have Pussyfoot Patrick make an appearance. I like to think you’d’ve grown some balls by now. If you haven’t, lucky for you, the remedy is a dinghy ride over to the island.”
Inside, I bristled at my old nickname. Margo stared at me until I sighed, resigned to the plan. “Does it still float?”
“Sure does. Jenny and Darren used it last summer. We’ll have to deal with a few spiders but that’s it.”
After breakfast, Margo packed a grocery sack with sandwiches and the bottle of bourbon. We walked to the shore. The boat was in a shed beside the lake’s edge, and I dragged it along a splintered wooden track until it tipped and slid the rest of the way onto the water. Margo stepped in and steadied herself. “See,” she said, giving the boat a wobble. “Seaworthy as ever.”
I hopped in and took up the oars. The lake’s surface was a mirror, and the tiny craft skated along toward the overgrown acre of land we called Catscratch Island.
“Do you remember why we called it Catscratch Island?” Margo asked as I rowed.
“Something to do with Aunt Ronnie, right?”
“No, Aunt Bonnie. One night I swear she downed a bottle of gin to herself and put on Ted Nugent as loud as it would go so she could hear it by the water. She started pointing to places around the lake and naming them. Said she was going to have all the atlases updated accordingly. The island became Catscratch Island, and over there...” Margo pointed to a rocky peninsula on the far side of the lake. “That became Wang Dang Point.”
“She was so embarrassed every time the kids would bring it up. I don’t think she ever drank again except at my wedding. Looking back, I don’t blame her.”
The bow of the boat scraped along the sandy shore of Catscratch Island, and we stepped out. Margo lifted the bourbon out of the sack and offered it. I had a swig; she had two. Then we hauled the dinghy out of the water and let it rest at an angle on the rocky sand.
“Look at it,” she said, admiring the tangle of vines and woody bushes that filled the core of the island. “Same as ever.”
We walked the perimeter, passing the bottle.
“Can I ask you something?” Margo said as we finished our first lap.
“Do you regret your divorce?”
I drank and studied the scene across the lake from us. It was midday, and the sun beamed on the orange-blasted trees ringing the lake. The sky just above the leaves was the same rich, clear blue as Bethany’s dress-turned-apron, and in the distance, on the closest section of shoreline, was our family’s cabin. Built, expanded, redesigned, and redecorated, it had never lost its bones.
“I don’t,” I said and had another swig. “There were doubts at first, sure, but now I don’t really feel much of anything about it. If we had had kids, maybe it’d be different.” I gave the bottle back.
“Do you hate her?”
“No. Not anymore.”
“Must be nice.”
“We had different challenges,” I said.
Margo was silent for a moment then stopped walking. “I want to show you something.”
I looked at the wet slurry of sand and gravel at our feet.
“Not right here. Up there.” She nodded toward the island interior.
I scanned the brush and grass that filled the area. “It’s a mess in there.”
“It’s not bad. There’s a trail. See.” She marched up toward a bush and bent her frame around it, disappearing behind spindly branches. “C’mon!”
I followed her, and there it was: behind the bush, a thin trail wound inward.
“What’s back here?” The island was small, two acres at most, and I felt like with any step, we’d emerge onto the opposite shore.
“You’ll see. Here.” She passed the bottle back over her shoulder. I drank.
Margo pushed aside a branch to reveal a tiny clearing. Really, it was just a tamped-down patch of dirt encased in shrubs. At one end was a stone, maybe a foot high, but taller than it was wide.
Margo stopped and took the bottle back. “Here.”
“Here? What’s here? Other than a bunch of ticks.”
She drank and then pointed at the stone with the bottle. “This is where we buried him. Where we buried Maddy.”
“Maddy ran away.”
“No, he didn’t. Michael hit him with his truck when we were coming down the driveway. It was an accident, but we brought him out here to give him a proper burial.”
“Is this a joke?”
“What the fuck, Margo? What was I doing?"
“I don’t know, but this was during your Pussyfoot phase, so we—you know—had to walk on eggshells.”
I stared at the stone.
“I know,” Margo said. “I’m sorry.”
“I loved that dog.”
We stood there watching the stone for another minute, then returned to the shore.
Margo and I made two more loops around the rocky edge of the island. Occasionally, a stiff breeze would tear past us and break the glass surface of the lake, churning the water into a choppy froth.
I wanted to be pissed, though whatever happened then didn’t mean much now. That was the thing about the cabin, all the good or bad that occurred there, it was just another layer.
Still, I had loved that dog.
On the last loop, we worked our way across a stretch where rough stones tumbled down from the embankment above us into the water. We paused and sat, polishing off the bourbon until the sun dipped below the trees behind us.
We got into the boat and Margo rowed back. Sitting in the stern, I watched the cabin grow larger. The boat smacked the shore opposite just as twilight bled into dusk. “We never ate our sandwiches,” I said as Margo tied the boat off to a post in the water.
She laughed. “That’s alright. Throw them in the fridge.”
Heading back toward the cabin, we meandered across the lawn, giving each other teasing pushes and laughing like kids. When we arrived at the front porch, I settled into one of the rockers.
“I need to rest a moment.”
Margo sat down in the chair beside mine.
“Why did you wait to show me that? Why now?” I asked.
Margo sighed. “I don’t know. I just didn’t want you to not know. Not anymore.”
I watched the daylight fade like a flame out of air. For whatever reason, that answer felt right.
I woke up in the dark and found Margo in the kitchen reorganizing the cabinets above the sink.
“Look who’s up,” she said when she saw me.
“I don’t usually take naps.”
“Rest when you need to rest. You’ll be happy to know I’m making my world-famous mac and cheese tonight. I have just about everything, but we need some milk and another bottle of wine. Do you mind running to town?” Margo didn’t mention me going to Eastport.
“Not at all.”
“Great, the corner store on Route 1 should have everything.” She put down a fresh drink and came closer. “I can’t tell you how much it means that you came,” she said. “You were always my favorite cousin.”
I grabbed my keys. The bourbon had left me groggy, but after two wrong turns I found the store. Little had changed since when we were young: the same signs advertising cigarettes and lotto tickets at the state minimum still plastered the windows, and behind the counter a Bush ’92 campaign sticker hung above the clock next to the TV.
It was as I was checking out that I really looked at the TV. The news was on, and a reporter was speaking live from outside Margo’s house in Portland. I could recognize it right away even though police cars lined the curb and an ambulance occupied the driveway.
The sound was off, but I read the banner beneath the reporter: Portland Man’s Death Ruled Homicide.
I blinked, hoping I could shake off some hallucinogenic side effect of bourbon on an empty stomach, but when I looked back up and saw my cousin’s face on the screen, I knew there was no confusion, no mistake. The picture police chose to air—yellowed even through the TV screen—was taken at the cabin. Margo was standing next to a man cropped out, his arm over her shoulder. She’s smiling.
“You alright?” The pimple-faced young woman at the counter raised an eyebrow. My stomach had fallen into my feet, and an intense nausea began to creep up my throat. I paid and left.
As I pulled up the driveway, the cabin was dark. Margo’s car was still out front, but by now everything was cloaked in moonless darkness.
I turned on the kitchen lights and discovered everything in the cabinets poured out onto the floor in heaps of pots and pans and plates. The new utensils that my cousin had brought were scattered on the floor, too. “Margo?” I whispered. On the kitchen table, a bottle of bourbon was more empty than not. “Margo?”
Moving into the sunroom, I saw the paintings stacked on one of the recliners; on the other, a shape.
And on a table was my cigarette case and the polaroids that had been inside it.
The shape squirmed and from under a blanket, my cousin poked her head up. “You’re sick. You know that.”
I sat beside her on a stool.
“Who are they?” she groaned and eyed the photos.
“Why are they like that?”
“They’re fine. They’re just sleeping. You shouldn’t have gone into my stuff. Why were you in the vent?”
She rubbed her eyes with the blanket and let out a whimper, then tossed something at my feet. “You always had the best hiding spaces.”
I picked it up and examined it: a Swiss Army knife, blood dried along the hinge, Hank inscribed on its side.
She nodded toward the pictures. “Is that why you came here, why you really came here? To stash those?”
I put the knife in my pocket. “It is.”
“This weekend, this cabin, this was my last good thing. You know that?”
“You’re sick,” she said again.
“We’re all sick, Margo.”
My cousin pushed her face into the blanket and shook her head again. She was still for a while. When I went to stand, she grabbed my arm.
“Be with me. Just be with me. Please.”
I sat back down and wrapped my hands around hers. We sat in the quiet peace of the cabin, surrounded by artifacts of a treasured past, until the red and blue lights flashed in the distance around Wang Dang Point.
Evan Helmlinger is a writer and editor living in Connecticut with his amazing wife, curious son, and lazy cat. He holds a BA in English and History from Syracuse University and has spent nearly a decade crafting, editing, and publishing work that sticks in the mind. Fascinated by the secrets we all keep just beneath the surface, Evan crafts his ideas while folding laundry or working in the yard, later putting them to paper. His work has appeared in Mental Floss, The Humor Times, and elsewhere.
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