J Whitworth Hazzard’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: Cabin #4
Blackwood, New York was a tiny little shell of a town stuck in the southern woods of the Finger lakes. The drive over from Massachusetts had been beautiful, winding into the foothills of the Catskills among the pines and spruce trees, but as soon as I passed the decaying lumber mill on Route 7, the landscape took on a decidedly depressing tone. A college-educated girl from Amherst like me was way out of my element in these backwoods sticks.
I pulled the Jeep into the Shell station to give Rocket, my german shepherd pup, a bathroom break and ask for directions to the Forest Moon Cafe. I’d done my research on the web, but the tiny cafe didn’t have a web page, or reviews, or so much as a directory listing. The elderly attendant at the gas station gave me directions but warned me I’d be better off finding food somewhere else. Anywhere else.
The bell on the door to the cafe jingled off-key as I stepped through and surveyed the place. If the place had seen a lick of paint in thirty years, it didn’t show. The decor looked like it was frozen in 1971 and had no hope of ever thawing. The only waitress, well into her fifties, frowned from her station behind the counter. She sized me up and went back to her crossword puzzle, waiting for me to pick a seat.
I pulled the black and white picture out of my purse and double-checked the scene. Same jukebox, same booths. This was definitely the right place. I walked to the end of the row and took the booth next to the jukebox. A tiny shiver passed through me as I sat down.
“Can I get you something, honey?” The waitress dropped a menu on the table in front of me.
“Sure. Can I get a burger and a coke?” I read the waitress’ name tag and tried my best casual tone. “Is Peggy short for Margaret?”
The waitress paused for a moment, “Yes, that’s right.”
“You wouldn’t know a Margaret Grambling, would you?”
The waitress scowled at me with suspicion. “I’m Margaret Grambling. How did you know that?” I knew because I did my homework. Eidetic memory wasn’t my only gift, but it was the one that put me heads and shoulders above my classmates. Devouring case files and spitting back facts in class had earned me the nickname “Witch-hazel.”
“I’m sorry. Where are my manners? I’m Hazel Churchill.” I held out my hand to shake and Peggy took it. “I’m a student at the Amherst College. I’m up here trying to finish up research for my senior project in investigative journalism.”
“In Blackwood? What could you possibly be…”
I pulled the picture of the two couples sitting in this booth and pushed it towards Peggy. The waitress saw the picture and clammed up mid-sentence. She went pale.
“I don’t know anything about that.” Peggy whispered.
I pulled a $50 bill from my purse and slid it across the table. “For the burger and a few questions. Payment in advance.”
Peggy snatched up the bill and retreated to the kitchen, leaving me alone but for a couple of old farmers sipping coffee and talking about cattle at the far end of the diner. I heard Rocket bark in the jeep and looked out the window to check on him. The dog was roaming back and forth in the back seat, sticking his muzzle out the windows to sniff at something. I was just about to go out to the jeep to settle him down when Peggy came back with her burger and slid into the booth across from me.
“What do you want to know?”
I took one bite of the burger and almost choked. The old man at the gas station was right. It was edible, but just barely. I washed it down with half the glass of coke and got down to the reason for the five hour drive.
“I have to work through a cold cases and present my findings. I chose this case because it’s unusual. Four people don’t usually vanish together without any clues, but I’m not here to cause any trouble. All I’m after here is a grade. The police reports say you waited on them the day they disappeared. Can you tell me what happened?” I slipped a notepad and recorder out of my purse and started taking notes.
Peggy took up the picture of the two young couples and stared hard at it, as if she was trying to stare back into the past. “I can’t tell you much. It was thirty years ago. I’ll tell you, I’ve told the same story a hundred times. The police, state troopers, detectives from Cincinnati, even a couple of FBI men. Betsy Smith—was the one where you’re sitting now—was with Carl Jackson. They was going together for about six months before this was taken. Gwen Miller—the one with her leg up on this side—was engaged to Teddy Manning. He’s the one in the back with the dark hair. They came in and ordered; soup and some sandwiches and coffee. They were talking loud and being rowdy. I caught Carl sipping out of a flask when I came back to the table once. They talked about going to the cabin to get drunk.”
“The cabin?” I knew the answer to the question already, but the reporter in me knew not to lead the witness.
“The ones up at Cedar Ridge. About ten miles from here up Route 7.”
“Did you over hear anything about their plans after the cabin? Maybe a weekend trip or something?” I asked.
“No. Nothing like that. They were cutting up and being crude. Kept teasing Betsy about being a virgin.”
“Do you know who took the picture?”
“Merle Jenkins. He took pictures of everything back then. Someone said he had a crush on Gwen, but if he did I never seen it.”
“Where’s Merle now?” The gangly teenager was the only suspect for a while but an airtight alibi stalled the investigation back in 1968, and every time the case was reopened after that.
“Died of lung cancer in ’83. If he had something to do with the disappearance, it’s too late to ask.” Peggy was right, and according to the FBI file, Merle maintained his innocence and denied knowing anything about the disappearances to the day he died. “I need to get back to work. I think that’s about all.”
I looked over the diner and didn’t see any new customers. Peggy looked fatigued. She was tired of talking about it.
“Last question, I promise. What do you think happened?”
Peggy looked shocked. “Thirty years and I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that.” She looked down at her hands, which were busy kneading themselves. “It’s going to sound crazy…”
“Nothing is crazy if it helps solve the case. Go ahead, shock me.”
“A few years after they disappeared, I talked to Teddy’s father about it and he was convinced that Teddy was in a cult.”
“What kind of cult?” We covered this phenomena in our media trends class last year. In the 70’s it was Devil worshippers, in the 80’s it was child molesters and pedophile rings, in the 90’s it switched over to street gangs. Unsolved cases usually got stuck with a trendy theory and shelved.
“Satanic. I think Teddy tricked the other three into going up there alone in the woods and did something bad to them. Maybe he had his cult members come in and kidnap them. Anyway, that’s what I think happened.”
Peggy got up from the table and turned her back on me. She was done. I eyeballed the remnants of the burger and thought twice before I took another bite. I turned off the tape, packed up my notes and headed for the jeep.
Rocket didn’t want the burger either. He took a tentative bite as we drove away from the diner and then let it sit on the back seat while we drove to Cedar Ridge Campground. I’d called ahead to the campground to make sure I could rent Cabin #4 and there was no problem. The cabins had passed through four different owners since the disappearance. The original owners passed away not long after the couples vanished, so there was no point in going over the story with the groundskeeper who signed me in and handed over the key. The Pakistani gentleman was happy to have my business—he said no one rents cabins out in the middle of the week, especially in November—but he was headed back to town after 5pm and made sure I knew I’d be alone. That suited me fine, since I planned on snooping around a little. The fewer questions he asked the better.
I drove the Jeep the last three hundred yards past the groundskeeper’s to cabin #4 and parked in the little gravel lot in front. As soon as I opened the door, Rocket bolted out of the Jeep and tore through the woods in a joy. He romped in the thick piles of leaves and barked happily. “Oh don’t worry about me. I’ll get the bags. You dopey dog.”
I slung my overnight bag and my gear on my shoulder and took a good look. The cabin looked nice from the outside. The old police photos showed that there were a few cosmetic changes since 1968, but nothing major. I opened the door and was met by a clean, well-kept interior. The one bedroom cabin was rustic but tasteful. I felt a little disappointed to be honest.
I knew there wouldn’t be any evidence from a thirty-year-old case staring me in the face, but a girl can hope.
I took photos of the interior and exterior of the cabin then examined the cabin board by board, looking for clues. Rocket and I walked the hiking trails around the campground, looking for anything out of the ordinary and found a few caches of crushed beer cans. The party crowd obviously didn’t have any problem with the place.
When the groundskeeper left at 5pm, I wasted no time in poking around all the other cabins; looking in windows, testing doorknobs, inspecting everything thoroughly. Nothing.
By the time we were done, the sun was under the horizon and a light snow started falling. I considered the five hour drive back to Amherst, but the cabin was already paid for and I was tired.
Rocket lifted his head suddenly and his tags jingled against my face. The motion woke me from a dead slumber. At first I thought maybe he had to go out to pee, but a low growl rose and then died suddenly in his throat. He looked at the front door while I rubbed my eyes and looked at the clock. 2:14am.
“What is it, boy? You need to go out?”
Out in the woods, a shriek tore through the silence of the night. Every nerve in my body set on edge instantly. Rocket leapt from the bed and ran to the front door. Another shriek came right behind the first. This time I was awake enough to hear it better. It sounded like the high-pitched scream of a woman.
“Shit,” I threw a pillow at Rocket who was pacing back in force in front of the door. “It’s just an owl. Go back to sleep.”
Another screech sounded, this time closer to the cabin. It sounded like the owl was right outside. Rocket flinched and skittered away from the door with his hackles raised. He barked furiously for a full minute and then stopped, his ears tilted up and head cocked.
I whistled for Rocket, “Come back to bed. It’s not going to hurt you, silly dog. Come on.”
Rocket paced the floor and looked at me expectantly. After a few minutes, I lay back in bed and pulled the covers over my head. “Fine. Suit yourself.” I was starting to drift off when I heard the footsteps on the roof.
Clop, clop, clop.
A pause and then more footsteps.
Clop, clop clop.
I bolted out of bed and grabbed the .38 revolver and a flashlight from my bag. My Daddy didn’t raise a fool. If somebody was out there messing with me, they weren’t going to find a cowering little girl inside.
Clop, clop, clop.
I slipped on my boots and grabbed Rocket’s leash. “Let’s go, boy.” Rocket whimpered as I dragged him towards the front door. “Man up! You’re an attack dog for God sake.” I whispered. I wrapped the leash around my fist and leveled the gun in my other hand. I mouthed to Rocket, one, two, three. We flung open the door and dashed out into the snow. We cleared the porch and turned, aiming the gun and flashlight back at the roof of the cabin.
The roof was bare. There was nothing there. My mouth dropped open when I saw the snow. It was a clear, clean blanket of undisturbed powder. Right where the footsteps were coming from. “Who’s out there?” I cried. I was pissed and the hairs on the back of my neck were standing on end. “I’m going to put a bullet right up your fucking ass if you don’t get out of here!”
A tiny voice in my head pleaded with me, Stop talking. Get back inside.
Rocket pulled on the leash and barked exactly once toward a big oak tree just outside the circle of light from the porch. He was shivering, and took a hesitant step back. I looked up into the tree and I saw it. Something was crouching up in the branches of the tree, almost thirty feet up. Something bigger than a human but draped in shadow. A dark patch of midnight; blacker than the surrounding night.
I was about to shine my flashlight on it when the voice in my head practically screamed, Don’t look at it. Get back inside!
I don’t know why I listened to the voices. I don’t usually back down from a fight, but something compelled me, practically forced my fear-frozen muscles to walk back to the cabin and shut the door. As soon as I locked the door on the inside, Rocket broke free of the leash and dashed under the bed. I knew he had the right idea so I pulled the blanket down and slid under the bed beside him.
We lay huddled together for a few minutes, until there was a noise at the front door.
Tap, tap. Tap, tap.
Something sharp and pointed clicked on the front door, entreating me to open it.
Tap, tap, tap, tap.
It had to be a branch or a woodpecker or something, my brain screamed out for a logical explanation. Something to cling to as the fear in my belly rose and the gun in my hand shivered. I was about to shout again when the voice in my head came back, Be quiet. Hide.
Time passed immeasurably slow. My heart was beating too fast to count the seconds passing by. When it seemed like an hour had passed and my heart was starting to calm, the door shook in its frame.
BANG, BANG, BANG.
Rocket yelped and the stink of dog piss flooded under the bed. The puppy wet himself and I was covered in it laying next to him. The insistent and irresistible slam on the door drew me out from under the bed. I don’t know why. Maybe my body thought it was the cops, or someone in trouble. I felt pulled towards the door.
BANG, BANG, BANG.
The door shivered and strained against the bolt as something powerful knocked; waiting for me on the other side. My hand rose to the knob and the gun shook uncontrollably. Rocket whimpered behind me and scratched at the wood floor trying to escape.
Hideous tendrils of slithering sound—the barely audible mimic of a human whisper—crept through the door, “Come… out… and… play… with… me….”
Don’t open it. It was only when I looked through the crack in the front door and saw the sliver of infinite darkness on the other side that I realized the voice in my head wasn’t my own. Please. Hide.
I pulled my hand off the knob, not realizing it was halfway turned and scrambled backwards. I slithered under the bed beside Rocket and covered us with the blanket. I was set upon on all sides by a deep silence that curdled my blood. The night stretched on for an eternity but there were no more knocks on the door, or footsteps on the roof, or screams in the woods.
Somewhere in the small hours before dawn I passed out from exhaustion with my puppy beside me for warmth.
When I woke up, it was full daylight and a beautiful fall day outside Cabin #4. The light dusting of snow clung to everything and where I expected footprints, or claw prints, or—something, there was nothing. It was like it never happened.
Rocket and I knew the truth.
I ended up getting an A on the cold case paper. My professor was impressed at my thorough approach to the investigation. But there was no joy in the grade. I didn’t write what I found out that night. I couldn’t. In my heart, I knew what happened to Betsy Smith, Carl Jackson, Gwen Miller, and Teddy Manning.
I’d like to think it was one of them who warned me; who saved me. But I do know this: When the thing came for them in the dark gloom and silence of the trees, one of them gave in.
One of them opened the door to Cabin #4.
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Trained in science and critical thinking, J. Whitworth spends his leisure time writing fiction that would make his former professors cringe. Dr. Hazzard’s PhD in molecular biophysics is used to figure out how to scientifically justify the existence of mythical creatures. Follow him at Twitter @Zombiemechanics Facebook Blog Zombie Mechanics