By Ekta R. Garg
Prompt: The whole town was keeping a secret from the outside world, and they were willing to do anything to protect it.
Harper leaned on his cane and waved at the thronging media as he approached the small podium to address them. He tried to keep a smile affixed to his face and not glance down at the podium while he reached for it with his left hand. He avoided leaning on it too hard. The reporters, bloggers, and camera people avoided seeing the way he needed the support. He cleared his throat, the sound reminding everyone in attendance of a car engine trying to turn over.
“Welcome, everyone,” Harper said.
Remember to keep smiling.
“As always, we’re happy to open the rainbow trout season here at Carter’s Lake, and we’re glad you’re here to commemorate this fine occasion,” he went on.
Nod to a few people; dammit, don’t forget to smile.
“Now, like every year, we ask that you keep a distance of at least a hundred feet from the lake,” Harper said. “Don’t want the trout thinking you’re their dinner now, do we?”
He chuckled, as did the reporters. Well, most of them anyway. One in particular, a petite girl who looked like she should have been holding pom pons instead of a reporter’s notebook, frowned at him. She bent over her notebook and scribbled in it.
“Thanks, everyone,” he said. “We hope you enjoy your lunch. Feel free to ask anyone on staff questions, but please keep your voices down. Welcome once again.”
One or two reporters—newbies, no doubt—called out a couple of questions, but Harper didn’t even look at them. Instead, he grabbed his cane and shuffled back toward the lodge, now closed. Defying all advice in every hospitality management course, Carter’s Lake Lodge shut down every year for the first month of spring. The tradition had been going on since time immemorial…or since Davis Carter first founded the lake and the lodge, anyway. The staff concentrated on cleaning, upkeep, and generally keeping the small town quiet as the trout came back home from migration and got to work on spawning.
Avery, Harper’s son, opened the door of the lodge for him.
“Damn press,” Harper muttered to Avery. “They get more damn intrusive every year. And what’s the story on that new girl in the front?”
Avery craned his neck to get a better glimpse through the windows of the crowd that stood scribbling notes, doing live shots, or live blogging from the front of the iconic structure.
Harper shuffled back around and threw a hand in the general direction of the reporters. “That one, on the end. She new?”
His son frowned in thought. “I don’t know. Haven’t seen her before.”
As if the reporter could hear Harper’s question through the triple-paned glass, she stared back at Harper and Avery. Or, more precisely, at the lodge. It felt as if she’d found them through the tinted windows, though. Harper shifted his weight two or three times.
Just then, the reporter strode forward with determination in her feet and a smart phone in her hand. She pushed open the doors to the lodge and jumped back several inches at the sight of Harper and Avery just standing there. After a moment, a smile worked its way to her face.
“Oh, Mr. Carter,” she said, “I’m so sorry. I hope I’m not bothering you, but I had some questions.”
Harper waved the cane in Avery’s direction. “My son here can point you in the right direction.”
The woman shook her head. “Well, actually, sir, I was hoping to talk to you. You know, get the perspective of the most experienced person on the lake.”
Harper pursed his lips. Did this…this…child really think she could flatter her way to an interview? He only did one interview a year. The same newspaper his daddy did interviews with and his grandad before. That reporter, Harper knew, wasn’t due in until the next morning, thanks to bad weather and a flight cancellation.
Even then, Harper had considered canceling the interview. Act of God be damned, the trout had to be protected. There were too many people here now as it was.
“I think you better just let Avery answer what you need to know,” Harper said, turning away from the reporter. “I need to go rest.”
He began to shuffle away when he heard footsteps rushing behind him.
“Is it true, Mr. Carter, that two of your employees went missing last year?”
“And that these employees had been known to disagree with the administration on certain fishing practices you have?”
“And that their families were paid an enormous amount of money to stay quiet?”
Harper stopped walking at that one and cocked an eye at the reporter. “You mean like a bribe?”
The woman—the girl—swallowed hard. Her smile wavered for a minute, but she didn’t let it slip all the way. Instead she pushed her smart phone closer to his face.
“There are a lot of questions being asked, sir, and a statement from you could go a long way toward clearing them up.”
Harper set his jaw. He didn’t like this girl. Didn’t like the damn press in general, no matter that they were a necessary evil. He preferred how things used to happen in the old days. When Carter’s Lake made its quiet contribution to society. The finest trout in the entire western United States.
“I don’t think I need to clear anything up, young lady,” he said after a moment. “You need to take your publicity shots and be on your way. Go back to your typewriter and write up your little feature piece like the rest of the reporters, and—”
“Actually, I use my phone to write my stories on,” she said, her smile daring him to question her again.
He huffed a breath of impatience. “Avery?”
“Why don’t you take this little lady here for a walk and answer all of her questions?”
Avery’s face fell. “All…her questions…”
Harper waved an arm in welcome. “Sure. We don’t want our reporter friend to think we’re hiding anything, do we?”
The reporter pocketed her phone, doing a bad job of hiding her glee. Harper sighed. She looked to be the age that Avery’s daughter would have been. If she’d complied. Hadn’t asked questions.
Avery had taken her on a walk too. Answered everything. All the way to the other side of the lake.
“Go on now,” he said, gesturing with his left hand. “She needs answers, well, give ‘em to her.”
Avery sighed long and deep and hung his head for a moment. He looked up and jerked his head toward the back of the lobby. “This way.”
Harper watched them leave and narrowed his eyes.
Holly blew her bangs out of her face as the Uber finally pulled in front of the lodge. Harper Carter stood there with both hands on his cane, his usual half-smile, half-frown waiting for her. She threw a hasty thanks over her shoulder as she tried not to fall out of the car.
She’d been assigned to Carter’s Lake for the last three years, and she thought that she and Harper had finally started seeing eye to eye on things. He still didn’t like her, she knew, but he also knew what to expect from her. That’s because Holly made sure to toe the line every time. She asked the standard surface-level questions, took two or three pictures arranged by Harper, and got out of town.
Holly had never admitted it to anyone, but Carter’s Lake gave her the creeps.
“Thanks for accommodating me like this, Mr. Carter,” she called as she jogged toward him.
“Press event was yesterday,” he said with his trademark half growl.
“Believe me, I would have much rather been here then,” she said.
“Me too,” he said. “There was a new girl. Didn’t catch her name, but she wasn’t playing by the rules.”
Holly shook her head. “People just don’t understand boundaries, do they, Mr. Carter?”
Harper let his gaze go to the lake, and Holly’s eyes followed. Usually at this time of year, the fish jumped so much she would have sworn they were trying to choreograph a synchronized swimming routine. Today, though, the surface of the lake didn’t even ripple.
“Fish seem pretty quiet today,” she said, doing her best not to make it sound like a question.
“Sometimes when they get back from migration, we give ‘em a special blend of our secret feed,” he said. “Helps the fish taste that much better when we harvest.”
She nodded in a generic sort of response and tried to ignore the smirk that crossed his face; instead, she continued to the lodge hoping, like every year, to get out of town as fast as possible.