The three men entered the treehouse. Martin groped in the dark for the light switch. The naked bulb that hung from the center of the low ceiling came on, throwing its harsh light over the room. Jim tossed down the bolt cutters he’d used on the padlock. Lionel went to the liquor cabinet and took out four jelly jars and a bottle of bourbon. He filled three of the jars and gave one to each man.
“To Ralph,” he said. After a respectful pause, he added, “The hairiest son of a bitch I ever knew.”
The other two men smiled, then they all chuckled. The glasses clinked. Each man took a long drink. When they lowered their glasses, Lionel knuckled the corner of his eye and turned his head away.
Jim, bushy-bearded, still smelling like oil, thrust one hand into the pocket of his tan coveralls. He lifted his glass again, saying, “And piss on the black dog that killed him.”
He was the only one to drink. Martin’s forehead wrinkled, and his mustache popped out a bit as he pursed his lips. “What’s the black dog? I thought Ralph shot himself.”
“Hell with that,” Lionel said. “He was murdered.”
There was a long pause. Lionel swallowed half his bourbon in one continuous gulp. He kept his hair cut in a military buzz and ironed his polo shirts. His voice always seemed on the edge of yelling. Jim asked him, low and even, “Why do you say that?”
“‘Cause Ralph wouldn’t kill himself,” Lionel said, pounding his forefinger on the formica tabletop. “He just wouldn’t!”
“I’m the one found his body over by the quarry,” Jim said, his voice a monotone like the motor on a golf cart coasting down a flat stretch of road. “Him there, in his truck, with an empty bottle beside him. It wasn’t murder.”
They stared at each other for a moment.
“What’s Dunc think?” Martin asked, to break the silence. Whitey Duncan was the sheriff. “Does he think it’s murder?”
“No, he don’t think it’s murder,” Jim said. “There ain’t been a murder on the island in almost seventy years.”
They lived on Little Limestone Island, a few square miles of rock and trees in Lake Erie off the Ohio shore. The island had a population of thousands once, when the quarries were in full swing. But now there were only a few hundred year-round residents. Lionel Schott owned one of the bars down by the dock that catered mostly to summer tourists. Jim Dunn did maintenance work for the ferries. Both had lived their whole life on the island. The third man, Martin van Wyk, kept a bed and breakfast with his wife, Lucy. Martin and Lucy moved to the island when they bought the B&B about seven years before. Ralph had taken a liking to Martin, and soon all four men met in the treehouse a couple times a month to drink and talk.
Lionel took another drink. “There’s been some strange things happening. Ain’t that right, Marty?”
Martin, who was tall, polo-shirted, and over-cologned, choked on his bourbon. He said, with his throat a little raw, “What do you mean?”
“Like that mutilated deer we found down the road.”
“Scavengers,” Jim said, not sounding entirely convinced.
Lionel sneered, and took another drink. “Coyotes?”
“Might’ve been,” Jim said. “Heard some howling last month. Could’ve swum over from the mainland.”
“There ain’t a dog on the island that Dime don’t know.” Dime Johnson, a Schott on his mother’s side, was Lionel’s cousin; he was the part-time deputy sheriff and animal control officer. “And he said there ain’t no loose dogs on the island, and no coyotes either. Anyway, neither one was big enough to do what happened to that deer. And what about what Betty Frary said, that thing clawing around her back door, tore up her patio furniture, killed one of her cats—”
“Jesus, Lionel,” Jim said, throwing his hand up in the air. “If you’re gonna listen to Betty Frary, you might as well cancel your cable TV. She said she saw sharks one time—swimming right out here in Lake Erie. She tell you a shark killed Ralph?”
Lionel glared at him.
“Hey,” Martin said. “Hey, aren’t we here to remember Ralph? Here’s to Ralph, the best damn treehouse builder I ever knew.”
The other two men smiled at that, lifted their glasses for the toast.
“Hell of a treehouse,” Lionel said.
“That it is,” Jim agreed. “We ought to replant the corner tree in memory of Ralph.”
The treehouse was a ten-foot-square room, surrounded by a narrow deck, built on a platform suspended between the trunks of four trees. One of the four trees had died, rotted from the inside out, but the rest of the structure was so solidly built that it propped the dead wood upright years after it should have fallen. Ralph had worked as a handyman, when he felt like working, and he’d triple-braced everything. The room inside was big enough for a table and chairs, a small refrigerator, and a couple cabinets, including the one that held the liquor.
“That tree’s been dead for as long as I’ve been here,” Martin said.
Lionel thumped his hand on the wall, which was a couple thick layers of plywood. “If it wasn’t dead when he built the treehouse, it wasn’t doing well. That was right about the time he hooked up with Trudy.”
Trudy was Lionel’s sister, but she was also Ralph’s wife. She and Ralph moved in together twenty-six years back, and had finally gotten married seventeen years ago. Long before Martin came to the island.
Lionel traced his fingertips over deep, old rows of parallel gouges in the wood frame beside the door. They looked like something made by a dog, scratching to get out.
Jim nodded his head at the marks. “I don’t ever remember him having a dog.”
“Hound dog, I guess. I don’t remember. It was a long time ago,” Lionel said, and they all seemed to wonder for a moment how it’d gotten up there.
“Must’ve been a big one,” Jim said.
“See, how the hell can you think Ralph killed himself?” Lionel said, lurching back to the other topic.
Jim took a drink and paused to roll it around his mouth before he swallowed it and answered. “You know how he was. He’s been fighting the black dog as long as we’ve known him.”
“What’s the black dog?” Martin asked, looking at the gouge marks.
“Depression,” Jim answered. “The black dog is depression. Haven’t you ever heard it called that before?”
Martin shook his head.
“Ralph wasn’t depressed,” Lionel said. “That’s a lot of mumbo-jumbo, drug companies trying to get people hooked on their drugs, make ‘em take a pill every day for the rest of their lives, that’s all that is.”
“I don’t know,” Martin said. “Depression is a pretty real problem. A serious problem.”
“Okay, so Ralph got a little blue sometimes,” Lionel said. “Maybe he was blue a lot. But lots of folks’re like that, and they suck it up, and go on living, and it don’t make ‘em depressed. He never complained about anything. He never told me he was having any problems.”
“He never told anybody anything,” Jim said. “And he never asked anybody for help with anything. Him or Trudy.”
“What do you mean by that?” Lionel snapped.
“I don’t mean nothing. That’s just how they are.”
“Hey,” Martin said, “let’s go outside. Let’s look at the moon, the way Ralph used to.”
“Yeah, sure,” Jim said, and Lionel said, “Sure, okay,” but neither one of them moved toward the door. Lionel had finished his bourbon already. The bottle clinked on the lip as he filled his glass again and topped off Jim’s. He canted his neck over for a look at Martin’s hand. “That glass half full, or half empty?”
“Half full,” Martin said. “The glass is always half full.”
“When it gets to half empty, let me know, and I’ll fill it up for you.” He thumped the bottle down on the table.
“You remember what Ralph used to say?” Martin asked. “We’d go outside and look at the moon, when it was just a half moon, and I’d ask him ‘Is that moon half full or half empty?’ And he’d say—”
“The moon is always full,” the three men finished in unison.
There was a pause, then they all laughed. Lionel took another drink. “He’d get so damn serious about that.”
“‘The moon is always full,'” Jim said, in the tone of voice that Ralph would’ve used. “‘That means it has a dark side you can never see.'”
“Yeah.” Martin shook his head, paused thoughtfully. “And that’s when he’d say there were monsters in the world.”
Jim nodded. “Then he’d start talking about how some monsters looked like normal people on the outside, and—”
“See, what I’m saying is,” Lionel insisted, like the other conversation wasn’t happening at all, “Ralph, he was a mainlander, kinda like you are, Marty, no offense intended.”
“You say ‘mainlander’ like this is Easter Island or something,” Martin said with a short little laugh.
“We like you a lot,” Jim said, as if apologizing for Martin’s poor taste in birthplace. “You and Lucy both. You’ve done a great job with the old Monk farm, fixing it up and all.”
“—like I said,” Lionel was saying, “no offense intended to you, or to Lucy, but you’re outsiders, and you don’t really know what it was like on the island here twenty-five, twenty-six years ago. The quarry business dead, all that land going back to wild, people leaving and not coming back. It was hard times. But Ralph came over here from Sandusky—”
“Wasn’t from Sandusky,” Jim murmured.
“—and he decided to stay here.”
“Don’t know where he was from before that,” Jim said. “But I remember those years real clear. It was about the same time the white-tail deer came back. There didn’t used to be any on the island, back when I was a kid.”
“Wow,” Martin said. “I see twenty, thirty at a time now.”
“That’s right,” Lionel said, thunking his glass down on the table. “Ralph said he came over here for the deer hunting, remember? Thought it was so pretty, he stayed.”
Jim took a drink. “Reckon he thought Trudy was so pretty, he stayed.”
A grin twisted its way across Lionel’s mouth, then disappeared. “Well, that might be the case. He was awful good for her. She was a bit of a mess when he showed up.”
Martin tilted his head. “I had no idea. What was it?”
Lionel frowned, looked down, like he was ashamed. Jim mimed a needle in his arm for Martin.
“It was . . . stuff,” Lionel said. “But she quit cold turkey soon as she met Ralph. He stayed with her the whole time. I don’t know anyone else could’ve done that.”
“To be fair, he was a bit of a mess too,” Jim said. “Seemed like he’d had some trouble with the law. He was pretty clearly running from something.”
“What do you mean by that?” Lionel said.
“I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“A man’s got a right to run from a bad decision or two, especially when he’s young,” Lionel said.
“I didn’t say he didn’t. But some things you can’t run from.”
“Hey,” Martin interrupted. “Hey, let’s go out on the deck. Let’s go out there and remember Ralph.”
“Okay,” said Lionel, and Jim said, “Might as well,” and they all went outside. The broken padlock hung on the door. There were three windows, one on each side of the treehouse, but they all had thick, solid storm batters on them, also fastened down with padlocks on the outside. The air was cool, and smelled like autumn. Leaves rustled in the wind that came off the north side of the lake, until they shook loose and fluttered to the ground alone and in pairs. The moon hung overhead, bright and round, one dark claw-shaped sliver short of full.
“Guess this’ll be our last time here together. Won’t be the same without Ralph,” Martin said. He lifted his glass up to the sky, forefinger stretched out toward the moon. “He would’ve called a moon like that one—what’s that word?”
“Gibberty-flibberty-something,” Lionel said, irritated.
Jim squinted at the sky. “Gibbous.”
“Yeah, that’s it.” Martin grinned, took another drink. “Too bad Trudy’s too sick to be here.”
Wind tapped the branches against the treehouse roof.
“I don’t know she’d want to be here,” Lionel said. “She didn’t like—hell, doesn’t like—anybody coming up Ralph’s treehouse.”
“It’s her place too,” Jim said. He tipped the rocker with his fingers and it creaked back and forth. “I’ve seen her sitting out here at night sometimes, in this rocking chair, when I’ve come by looking for Ralph.”
“And she always chased you off, didn’t she?” Lionel asked.
Jim rubbed his sleeve across his nose. “Come to think of it, now you mention it, she did.”
“About once a month she’d be rocking out here practically the whole night. I tried to come talk to her a couple times, and she chased me off like I was a bill collector or a, a, a Jehovah’s witness. Wouldn’t explain nothing. I figured it was some kind of woman’s problem and left her alone.”
The branches scraped along the roof in the wind again.
“How’s she doing?” Martin asked.
“Well, she just came off the respirator and then they had to tell her the news about Ralph,” Lionel said, shaking his head. “She’s out of ICU now though.”
“Hell of a thing that she’s been in the hospital two months in a row,” Jim said. “First with the flu so bad, and now with pneumonia.”
“It’s a terrible situation,” Martin said. “I feel just terrible for her. I mean, it’s difficult enough—”
“See, the thing is,” Lionel interjected, staggering off balance, catching himself, “Ralph went over to see her. Right before . . . you know. She was sleeping, but he talked to the docs, and they said she ought to be getting out by the first of next week. They said, Doctor Singh, he said Ralph sounded fine, cheerful, you know, real cheerful, more than normal, and the guys on the ferry say the same thing. So why would he go kill himself, when she was okay?”
Jim waited a moment, then said, “Lots of guys do that. It’s like once they make up their minds to . . . do it, they’re at peace.”
“Nah.” Lionel slowly pounded the railing with his fist. “Not Ralph. I’m telling you he was murdered. Had to be.”
“There was an empty bottle of bourbon on the seat of his pickup,” Jim said. “Woodford Reserve, you know, the one he’d been saving. I mean, if you saw it, it was clear what he did.”
“Why didn’t he come talk to one of us? To me?”
“Hell, he didn’t talk much to any of us even when he was doing good.”
“He coulda talked to me!” Lionel slammed his fist down on the railing, so hard it sounded like the wood cracked.
“Hey, hey now, hey,” Martin said. “He wouldn’t want us arguing—”
“He’d wan’ us find his killer—”
“There isn’t any killer!” Jim said, his voice increasing in intensity, like a golf cart engine straining up a hill.
“You know what?” Martin said. “I need another drink. I must be half empty after all. Who needs topped off?”
The other two men followed Martin back inside the treehouse. Martin picked up the bottle, and the two men set their glasses down, tapping their fingers on the table.
“Well, this is a hell of a wake,” Martin said, as he refilled the glasses.
“Oughta be an inquest,” Lionel mumbled. He took another drink.
“Let it go, Lionel,” Jim said quietly. “He’s dead, and you going on about it isn’t going to do Trudy any good.”
“You know how Ralph would bulldog stuff,” Lionel said. “Like fightin’ tha’ developer out on the point, was tryin’ to tear down the old orchard. Well, I’m gonna bulldog this one for Ralph.”
“And Ralph lost that fight because he wouldn’t let anybody else help him with it,” Jim said.
“Why you always runnin’ him down?” Lionel snapped.
“I’m not running him down. I’m just saying.”
“Hey,” Martin said. “You know, what I liked best about Ralph was the way, no matter how down he was, he always tried to think about other people, make sure they were okay.”
Lionel reached on top of the corner cabinet, tipped the fire extinguisher, and held up a key.
“He deserves a twenty-one gun salute, what he deserves,” he said, fumbling to get the key into the lock. “Shit, goddammit, wait, there it is. Who wants the thirty-eight?” When no one said anything, he said, “I’ll take the thirty-eight.”
“Thing I liked about Ralph,” Martin said, and took another long drink, turning his body away from Lionel. “Is, hell, I just plain liked Ralph. He was a good man.”
“I don’t want to say anything bad about the dead,” Jim said, “and I’m not, but, not really, but the thing about Ralph was he’d get locked into one way of doing things—”
Splinters flew up from the floor. Martin and Jim jumped back, and Lionel was saying, “God damn, god damn, goddammit!”
“Are you all right?” Martin asked, while Jim looked on silently.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” Lionel said. “Jus’ didn’ know it was loaded, is all.”
“You sure you’re all right?”
“Yeah! I said I’m okay, I’m okay. Who wants the Magnum? Where is it? Where’s the three-fifty-seven?”
Jim said, “Think about it, Lionel.”
“Tha’ was Ralph’s favorite gun—that’s why we need it. Where’s’it?” He was shifting a rifle, boxes of ammo, around in the cabinet, steel thumping wood, cardboard smacking shelves. “Say, here’s that present you got him last year, Marty.”
“Think about it,” Jim repeated. “That was his favorite gun. It’s the one he took up to the quarry. Okay?”
Lionel stood there, thirty-eight in his right hand drooping toward the ground. His left hand held a small, engraved wooden box, lid popped open. The lid read to kill the monsters. Martin had given it to Ralph for his birthday the year before, right there in the treehouse. The inside of the box was empty. There was a little red velvet bed, just big enough to hold a single bullet, a silver bullet Martin had custom made. But there was nothing in the box but a small dent in the velvet.
“What—?” Martin asked.
Jim put up his hands, palms out. “Now, Lionel—”
But the gun was lifting at the end of Lionel’s arm until it was even with Martin’s face. Lionel shoved the muzzle against Martin’s forehead, holding the empty box up in his other hand.
“Hey,” Martin said, his voice breaking.
“D’you do it?” Lionel asked. “You gave him the fucking silver bullet. You kill him? You want me to kill you? If you killed him, I’ll fucking kill you.”
“Put the gun down,” Martin said. “Just put the gun down.”
“Lionel,” Jim said, low and soft and slow. “You don’t want to do this—”
“Hell I don’t! Fuck you! Fuck all your lying bullshit!” He jammed the gun so hard against Martin’s forehead, it knocked him on his ass up against the wall. Lionel followed him as he fell, pinning his head against the plywood with the muzzle.
“That silver bullet,” Martin said, hands reaching up to grab the gun, holding back, afraid to touch it, “it was a joke, just a joke, because he used to say, you know, the monsters—”
“Shut up! Shut the goddamn hell up!”
“Lionel,” Jim whispered. “Ralph drove up to the quarry, got dead drunk, and shot himself in the head.”
“You shut up too!”
“He left a note for Trudy, saying he was sorry, saying he was too afraid to go on living without her. That’s it. That’s all. You know all that. He killed himself.”
The three of them stood there, Lionel panting, Jim taking a couple long slow deep breaths, and Martin not breathing at all.
Lionel’s shoulders sagged. He slowly lowered the gun, covered his face with his hands, and staggered over to the corner. Martin kicked his legs, crabbing his way over to the opposite wall, trying to stand up, sliding back down on his ass.
“You moron!” he choked. “You could’ve killed me!’
“Jus’ leave me alone, Jim.” Lionel’s voice was shaking. “You don’ know Ralph like I did. My sister loved him. He wouldn’ ever hurt her, me, no’ like this. Has to be murder. You understand? You understand why it has to be a murder?”
Martin rubbed the mark on his forehead.
Without looking at either man, Lionel set the gun down on the table by the bottle of bourbon. He walked out the door. The ladder creaked as he climbed down to the ground. A moment later, a car door slammed way off near the road, an engine roared to life, and tires squealed on pavement.
Then silence again.
Martin stood up, picking up his glass from where he’d dropped it when he fell. Somehow, it hadn’t broken. He poured more bourbon, downed it. His face was bright red, and his hands were trembling. “Why’d he do it?”
Jim swirled the bourbon around in his glass, watching the whirlpool that formed. “Oh, he really loved Ralph, especially for the way he helped Trudy. He just doesn’t know how to show it. He didn’t mean anything—”
“No, I meant Ralph. Why’d he do it? Why’d he do it now?”
Jim shrugged. Lifted the glass to his lips, then put it down again without sipping. “Don’t you worry about that bullet.”
“Don’t you tell me not to worry about that bullet!”
“We don’t even know it’s the one he used. Maybe, maybe he was carrying it in his pocket, for luck, or he was, he—”
“Jim, you don’t think Ralph was? I mean the moon, the silver bullet, all of that? For all those years, dealing with, every month, I mean.”
“What’re you trying to say?” Jim asked.
“You trying to say he was some kind of—”
“No. No, that’s crazy. Just forget it.” Martin set his glass down on the table, spilling it. “No, it was just, what’d’you call it, the black dog. That’s all.”
“Yeah. That’s all.”
The door stood open but neither man went through it. The moonlight walked in like it owned the place, and the wind howling in off the lake was cold and empty.