NaNoWriMo: “The Hunger” by S.C. Jensen PART 3
I figure NaNoWriMo is a lot like writing a serialized novel; you have a rigorous pace to keep and no time to go back and change things or fuss around with word choices. This is a first draft habit I struggle with and really need to improve upon. So I’m committing to writing 50K words this month, and sharing with you as I go. I hope you will read along, toss me the occasional word of encouragement, and inspire me with ideas for what should happen next. The working title for this piece is “The Hunger” and it is a supernatural thriller about a family canoe trip that goes horribly, horribly wrong. Enjoy!
“Well,” Frank said. He stood before the boarded up entrance of the tunnel and scratched his head. “I guess we can’t argue with our own eyes.”
Margaret thought that was rich after he’d spent forty-five minutes arguing with Margaret and Robert about what they’d seen with their eyes. The entrance to the mine wasn’t visible from their campsite. Frank had been convinced that his map was right and Margaret and Robert were having some kind of joint hallucination. Brian was convinced they were trying to play a joke on the rest of the group. It was Ellie who said, “Let’s go check it out, then.”
The trip through the forest toward the bottom of the cliff went pretty well. Margaret felt the oppressiveness of the trees around them, like an endless pressure. But in reality, the trees grew with quite a bit of distance between them and the underbrush was minimal. The dry crunch of pine needles below their feet was the only sound as the group hiked on in silence.
The silence itself was unsettling. Not that Margaret wanted to listen to a bunch of know-it-all chatter from the Swains. But without their voices to distract her, Margaret became very aware of the actual silence. The forest was too quiet. There were no birds. No leaves rustling. Just the dead crunch of pine needles under their feet. It was unnatural.
That feeling didn’t go away once they stood in front of the mine entrance. The Swains didn’t seem to notice. But Ellie and Mom shifted from foot to foot and scanned the trees the same way Margaret was. Robert stood stiffly next to her.
“Fascinating!” Gerald walked around the entrance to the mine, kicking at ancient debris with his toes. “Even if this isn’t Drake Mine, it definitely looks like someone was mining here. What is it they were looking for around here?”
“Copper, mostly,” Frank answered. “But Drake Mine is the only one legally registered in the area. It’s possible this is an offshoot passage from one of the main drilling chambers, though. Like and emergency exit.”
“When do we go in?” Brian’s eyes glinted with excitement.
“Shouldn’t we check up lake to see if there’s another main entrance?” Margaret asked. She wasn’t keen on the idea of them exploring the mine at all. Further exploration would at least delay the inevitable. Maybe they’d get weathered out before anyone went underground. She didn’t know why, but the idea of anyone going inside the abandoned mine bothered her worse than any of it. It just felt wrong, like an intrusion.
Hell, even Charles Thomas hadn’t wanted to go near the mine.
“Well it’s definitely Drake,” Frank said. He picked up picked up an old, gray board stamped with black letters: DRAKE. “One shaft is much like the others. We could go in here.”
“Unless you wanted to check for bones,” Brian joked. “With tooth marks.”
Mom’s eyes focussed on the boarded up entrance, drawn to the darkness beyond. “Bill Williams said they burned the bodies,”
“’Bill Williams’ said whatever he thought he could say to get a rise out of you girls,” Brian said, carefully including Robert in his pointed gaze.
“Well I, for one, would love to go check it out.” Gerald proudly slapped Frank on the back. “Let’s have a look at the old profession, shall we?”
“We can discuss our options back at camp,” Frank said. “I’m starving.”
“Just as long as I’m not on the menu, bro.”
“Not yet,” Robert said. “But I suppose if we were desperate enough…”
“Don’t get his hopes up, Bobby,” Ellie said. “Things will have to be more than desperate before anyone eats Brian.”
“Fuck off,” Brian said.
But they followed Frank’s advice and ended up back at the camp. Frank was full of enthusiasm for the next few days’ exploration.
“We’ll go into the first shaft initially. If this is the main Drake shaft we’ll have lots to explore,” he said. “If not, we’ll get in a little ways and reassess.”
“You make it sound so easy,” Margaret said.
“It is easy,” Frank said. “Why wouldn’t it be?“
“You’re a few decades off the rescue mission,” Ellie said. “For one thing.”
“Look, Drake Mine is nothing to be afraid of,” Frank said. “Yes, there is some awful history. But as Dad can tell you, history doesn’t make the place.”
“It’s true,” Gerald said. “There are lots of places in Canadian history with horrific pasts.”
“And, what,” Ellie asled. “We just forget about it now? I’m sure that’s exactly what our ancestors wanted.”
“Your ancestors sold the land to government officials,” Frank said. “They knew full well what they were doing.”
“Have fun down there, then,” Robert said. “But I’m not going in and I’m not supporting this foolishness.”
‘Surprise, surprise,” Brian said. “Bobby Is afraid.”
“Bobby’s not a fucking moron,” Ellie snapped.
“Ellie, please.” Mom’ had her warning voice on again.
“Look, you guys do what you want tomorrow,” Margaret said in an attempt to keep the peace. “I’d like to see if we can find the main shaft further up the lake. Anyone want to come?”
“You can’t make it all the way up there and back in a day,” Frank said. But he sounded somewhat appeased by Margaret’s admitting his map might still be right.
“Unloaded, with three paddlers, we should be able to do eight kilometers an hour,” Margaret said. “As long as the weather holds. It’s only 25 kilometres to the mine. We’ll be able to check it out and be back before supper.”
Brian scoffed as if he didn’t believe it. Margaret thought if she paddled like Brian did she wouldn’t believe it either. But she knew they could make it easily, as long as the winds stayed like they had this morning. And so far the sky was clear, with no hint of the winds that had tormented them the night before.
“I’m game,” Robert said.
“You okay with that, Mom?” Ellie asked.
“Sure,” Mom replied. “I’ll hold down the fort here. These fools still need someone to make lunch, I guess.”
“Come on, Grace,” Frank said disapprovingly. “You know I want you to come with us.”
“Really, dear,” Mom said. “I’d rather not. I thought I might when we talked about it in town, but after seeing the thing I really have no interest in going in there. I’ll take lunch duty.”
“It’s settled then,” Gerald said. “Now when’s this food going to be ready? I’ll make us some drinks.”
Gerald seemed to come with an endless supply of whisky wherever he went. The man never appeared to be drunk, but he also never stopped drinking, so who knew. He rustled off into his tent to find whatever he needed to play bartender.
“You guys really don’t want to explore the mine?” Brian asked. He seemed genuinely baffled. “I’ve got my med kit and we brought climbing gear. It’s totally safe. Grace?”
“Who’s going to make your grilled cheese sandwiches if I get stuck under a rock?”
“Alright folks, drinks up.” Gerald came out of his tent shaking a novelty rugged-style martini shaker with a stack of stainless steel cups in his left hand. “Tomorrow is a big day.”
Robert laughed. As much as he hated the Swains, Robert had a soft spot for Gerald’s old lush persona. He stared into the cup Gerald offered him. “What the hell is this? A cherry?”
“You can’t have a proper Manhattan without a cherry,” Gerald winked. “Of course, to be a proper Manhattan I’d have to stir them. But I’m a practical man.”
“Says the man who brought vermouth and bitters on a canoe expedition,” Mom laughed.
Margaret sipped her cocktail and bit into the bright red marichino cherry. “How civilized,” she said.
Maybe it was the Manhattans—she’d had four—but Maragaret slept better that night. It helped that Brian stayed in his own tent and didn’t bother with the screaming and the shaking. But overall, Margaret felt better, better about everything.
The Swains would do their urban explorer thing; Brian would probably videotape the whole thing and have it uploaded on some website within moments of getting back to a wifi signal. Mom was going to stay back and tend camp. And Ellie, Robert, and she could escape, even if it was just for an afternoon.
She felt good.
When Robert stumbled into the tent a few hours afterward, she rolled over and pressed her ass against his crotch. Robert grunted appreciatively, slid a hand into her fleece pyjama pants, and slipped them down around her hips. Ellie snored on the other side of the tent.
Maybe this trip wouldn’t be so bad.
Even Margaret could admit that her reservations about coming to Drake Mine had never been based on anything concrete. For some reason, when Frank brought the idea up a few weeks ago, Margaret reacted with the same gut-wrenching refusal that she felt for anything Frank suggested. No, no, no, hell no. Maybe that was all it was.
At the time it had felt like more. It had felt like fear. But she had no reason to be afraid. She’d heard the history—they learned it in sixth grade Social Studies—but it had never really resonated with her. When they were growing up, Margaret and Ellie spent most of their free hours in the bush. Her sister gave her a hard time for taking local myths too seriously, but Margaret knew some of the stories held more weight than others.
Her concerns about Drake Mine were more practical than residual school-girl nerves about spirits. She was worried that Frank would get hurt. Or worse. And that, for all that she hated the man sometimes, her mother would be alone again.
Frank wasn’t so bad, when she really thought about it.
A few hours after Robert had finished, Margaret woke again. She shifted out of the cold, wet spot she lay in and pulled up her pyjamas. The night was quiet. The only sound was the wind sighing through the trees, obviously much more content with their presence than the first night.
Brian probably had too much to drink and passed out before he could continue the prank. Good, Margaret thought, because if he tried it tonight Ellie probably would beat him with the paddle. Then they’d have to hide the body. Margaret giggled to herself.
It was strange, she thought as she drifted off again, how much the trees sounded like whispers. Like voices chattering around the tent. She wasn’t supposed to acknowledge any ‘superstitious nonsense’ when they were out in the wild, Ellie and she both knew how easily fear could take hold and make you think the strangest things were true. But tonight, Margaret didn’t feel afraid. She listened to the trees whispering to one another and wondered, vaguely, if they were talking about them. The motley crew that had turned up to explore this mine that shouldn’t even be here.
They got an early start in the morning. Margaret wanted to take advantage of the same calm they’d had yesterday morning. She wanted to make it up to the mine and back in record time, just to drive home the point to Frank about what shitty paddlers he and his brother were. She wasn’t sure why, but she’d woken up feeling antagonistic again.
Luckily, neither Ellie nor Robert seemed very enthusiastic about lingering at breakfast. They both powered through their coffees, mostly ignored the Swain’s explorer talk, packed some snacks, and were ready to go.
“You sure you don’t want to come, Mom?” Ellie asked as they loaded up the canoe with their day packs and water bottles. “We could squeeze you in here.”
“Thanks, Ellie,” Mom said. “I know. But my knees aren’t too thrilled with the idea of more paddling. I’m looking forward to a day by the campfire with my book, actually. I’m not as young as I once was.”
“But you’re as young now as you’ll ever be,” Robert chimed in.
“What did I tell you about country music?” Ellie tossed a paddle at him. “You want to go swimming today?”
“I’ll make the curried chicken for supper tonight,” Mom said. “I’m sure you’ll all have an appetite.”
“Sounds good, Ms. Churchill,” Robert climbed into the canoe. “Don’t let those silly Swains lure you into the underground.”
“Not much chance of that,” Mom said. “I don’t fancy myself a canary, thank you.”
“See you soon, Mom.” Margaret said from the bow. “Love you.”
“Love you too, girls,” Mom said. “And you, Bobby. Have fun out there!”
That morning on the lake was a totally different experience from the morning before. The early morning mists still curled around the trees on the shore, and the gentle breaths of wind still stirred them across the lake. But the day felt much less ominous that yesterday, Margaret thought.
It seemed everyone was on the same page about showing up the Swains paddling skills, because Robert and Ellie drove them forward with record speeds. So much that Margaret struggled to keep up with their pace and find her place in the rhythm of the strokes.
The fat white canoe cut through the water like a schooner, skimming across the top of the lake as if they were weightless. Margaret revelled in the feeling of real paddling. This was what she missed. This is what she longed for when she was out in the bush.
Margaret watched the water break and spray off the front of the canoe. The two waves the slid next to the hull churned up the water right where she dug her paddle in. In that moment she felt one with Reyer Lake, like their presence had a purpose beyond fulfilling some macho dream of Frank Swains.
“Do you think we’ll find anything at the end of the lake?” Ellie wondered, slightly breathless from the rigorous pace. “What are the chances that there are two entrances to the same mine?”
“Pretty good, actually,” Robert said. “I didn’t want to say anything to the all-knowing Swains. But my Gramps mentioned lots of little ins and outs in the area. Some of these old mines are huge, it would be ridiculous to only have one entrance or exit.”
“So why did the Swine have such a hard time wrapping his head around the idea?”
“Well, first of all, because I am the one who told him,” Margaret said. “And I’m known to be ‘unreliable’ and ‘skittish.’”
“Mostly that,” Robert said. “Plus, for all Frank wants to be the expert, the mining industry today is very different from back in Gramps’ day. Those were the Wild West years. Wild north, I guess.”
“Bascically Frank is a prejudiced old wannabe,” Ellie said. “Yeah. Okay, I’ll buy that.”
They kept paddling without talking for most of the morning, just enjoying the calm waters and the warmth of the sunshine. As the heat of the day burned off the fog, the trees looked quite beautiful to Margaret. The evergreens were brilliant in their various shades of blue and green. And the few deciduous trees that retained their leaves after the first frost offered a shot of yellow and orange to brighten up the landscape that matched the neon-coloured lichen that seemed to cover every rock that inched toward the water.
Margaret didn’t know what it was, but there was something that was just right about the north. It had that fresh, unlived-in feel that she had never experienced anywhere else—not that she’d been so many places. But Margaret had a feeling that if all the people on earth just evaporated someday, that in a few years the planet would look a lot more like this—like the north and its trees and its lichen and the cool breeze that braced itself across the lake. The cool breeze that had a hint of winter in its breath.
“It’s getting cold,” Ellie said.
“Yeah,” Margaret replied. “Definitely turning over to winter at this point. I hope we don’t see any snow in the next couple of days.”
“Maybe being able to explore a little closer to the mainland will get us off Reyer more quickly,” Robert said from the back of the boat. “I wouldn’t be sad if we hit the road before temperatures drop below zero.”
“End of the line up there,” Margaret said. “You see anything that screams ‘mineshaft’ up ahead?”
“Hard to say,” Ellie said. “Let’s get out and walk around anyway. My knees are getting stiff.”
They pulled up to the far shore just after noon, dragged the canoe out of the water, and Margaret unpacked some of the sandwiches she’d made that morning. Neither she nor Ellie mentioned it when Robert tied the canoe to a thick tree and double checked the knot despite the fact that the air was dead calm. Not a ripple touched the surface of the lake right now. This was one of those things they agreed not to talk about.
Margaret had a closer look at the map and scanned the rocky hillside that crept up away from the waters of Reyer. The mine looked to be just up from the little inlet to her left, not quite as far up as the one near their campsite was. From their picnic spot, she couldn’t see anything like the great gaping hole she was expecting to see. The gray rocks just piled up behind her, sparse trees jutted up between them at random intervals, giving the landscape a somewhat bare and desolate look.
When they had finished their sandwiches, Margaret, Ellie, and Robert began to pick their way up the hillside toward where the minesite should be. While they didn’t see anything promising right off the bat, Margaret did notice some bits of rusted metal here and there between the stones at her feet that hinted they must be in the right area.
After they had climbed a good ways up the hill, Robert stopped and put his hand up to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun. In the bright afternoon light, the gray of the rocks became a pale wall that obscured their path and made Margaret’s eyes ache.
“What’s that?” Robert said. “Looks like some old boards behind that little patch of spruce trees.”
He was right. There behind the trees was a pile of boards as gray and bleached as the stones around it. They were placed haphazardly across a narrow hole in the cliff face. Thin rusty streaks bled into the wood grain from where the boards had been nailed to one another decades ago. The nails themselves had rotted through, and left the boards dangling like a makeshift door, rather than a barrier.
“It looks so old,” Ellie said.
Margaret felt a chill creep up her spine. It did look old. And it should. Drake Mine was deactivated and abandoned almost eighty years ago. It was a wonder there was anything left of the mine site at all with the kind of harsh weather Reyer Lake must see every spring and winter. This was definitely the entrance to Drake Mine.
And it looked much older than the entrance near their campsite.
Robert approached the shaft and pulled a Maglite out of his jacket. He shone the beam of the flashlight into the darkness beyond the boards, but stayed well back from the entrance. Margaret was relieved at that. She didn’t like the ideas of the network of tunnels beneath their feet. She imagined it like an ant farm that might collapse under them at any moment. The entrance seemed particularly vulnerable to falling into itself.
“Goes pretty much straight down, I think,” Robert said. “I can’t see anything past the first couple of metres.”
“Well we don’t really need to check it out that closely,” Margaret said. “We just wanted to see if it was here, right?”
Robert stepped away from the shaft gratefully. He looked around the area. “See that clearing over there?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Ellie said. “The flat spot?”
“I think that’s where the lodgings were,” Robert said. “Gramps said there was a long house of some kind that the miners slept in when they weren’t working.”
“You can see part of the old foundation on the left,” Margaret said. Ancient logs had been secured to the rocks with long iron spikes. Most of the logs had rotted away, but there was a hint of them along the hillside, bits of disintegrated wood and rusty leeching on the rocks.
“I didn’t notice anything like this around the campsite,” Ellie said.
“I guess they didn’t stay there overnight,” Robert said. “Maybe it was just an emergency exit?”
“I don’t think that’s it,” Margaret said. There was something about seeing the original Drake Mine site that had her thinking. “Did you look inside the other shaft? Back at camp?”
“Naw, I let old Frank do the inspecting.”
“I’ll be curious what the find in that one,” Margaret said.
Ellie raised an eyebrow at her. “Not curious enough to go check it out yourself, I suppose.”
“Hell no,” Margaret laughed. “But I think that’s a newer site. I wonder if someone has been digging illegally up there.”
“Maybe that’s why Frank actually brought us up here?”
“There gold in them thar hills!” Robert shouted and ran back down the path toward the shore. Ellie laughed and followed him.
Margaret scanned the mine site one more time, committing it to memory. There was something here that she needed to remember. She just couldn’t think of what.
Eventually she, too, climbed down the rocks. Margaret didn’t like the feeling of having Drake Mine at her back. Her ankle was still sore from where she’d twisted it the day before, so she didn’t run. But she hopped as quickly as she could down the hillside, following Robert and Ellie’s laughter like a beacon.
Robert already had the canoe in the water when she got to the bottom. Ellie tossed their bags into the boat and stood waiting for Margaret to get there.
“After you, sister dearest!”
“You don’t want to take the bow this time, Ellie?”
Ellie looked horrified. “Then I’d actually have to paddle!”
Margaret rolled her eyes and hopped into the canoe. Ellie followed her, settling on the middle of the boat. Robert pushed them out onto the open water and they were on their way.
The winds seemed to favour them on their way back to camp. Still barely more than a gentle breeze most of the time, but is guided them ever so insistently back down the lake so that each stoke of the paddle seemed to do the work of two.
“I can’t wait for your mom’s chicken curry,” Robert said. “What did we ever do without dehydrators?”
“Your ancestors are ashamed, Robert.”
But when they pulled up to camp, Mom wasn’t there. Neither was anyone else. The breakfast dishes were stacked but not washed, next to the campfire. The campfire itself was cold.
“Maybe she went up to supervise after all?”
“I’m starving,” Ellie said. “Can we eat and then socialize? Please?”
“You get the fire going and I can be convinced of anything. My hands are freezing.”
“The wind is picking up again,” Robert said. “Good thing we left when we did or we might have sailed right past and landed on Bill Williams’ doorstep.”
“I’d prefer his company to the Swine brothers,” Ellie said, bitterly.
The rehydrated a shrink wrapped package of chicken meat and sauce and some instant rice. Margaret put on some extra water for tea. “What the hell is taking them so long?”
“Cover the pot,” Ellie said. “We should go check on them before it gets dark.”
“Ugh. Fine. I guess we can reheat the tea, too.”
They made their way up the hill toward the mine entrance. As the approached the hole in the cliff, twilight was falling around them. The wooden boards that had been blocking up the entrance were pulled aside and stacked neatly on the ground, making the door look like a great yawning mouth in the rock. It was pitch black inside. There was no sign of Mom or the Swains.
Margaret felt her anxiety kicking in again. “Robert, shine that light in there. Where the hell are they?”
“Hello?” Ellie called into the pitch while Robert fumbled for his Maglite. “Supper is ready!”
Her own voice echoed back at the group, but no one replied. Finally Robert got his flashlight out and shone the beam into the hole. A small room was illuminated in the yellow light of his flashlight. But there didn’t seem to be any tunnel leading further into the cliff. No shaft plunging underground. Just a small room, with a silver pot, a cook stove, and a sleeping bag.
“What the fuck?”
“Are the other canoes still here?” Ellie asked. “Are they fucking with us again?”
“I’m going to be so pissed if Mom is in on this too,” Margaret said. “This is beyond childish.”
“I’m going to drink my damned tea and go to bed,” Ellie said. “Those jerks can freeze out here playing their games for all I care.”
Margaret knew she wasn’t allowed to say anything without breaking her pact with Ellie. But she couldn’t help but wonder who had been sleeping in the hole. And how long it had been since they were at home.
They finished their tea and washed up the supper dishes as the sun settled in behind the trees. Long shadows stretched down the hill toward them, black fingers that seemed to be reaching past them to touch the icy black waters of Reyer Lake. The loons were at it again, ululating laugher swelling and bouncing off the trees and rocks so that it was impossible to tell what was real and what was an echo. Margaret felt as if she were slowly going insane with the loons’ mad laughter.
But there were no other noises in the forest around them. No human laugher signalling a joke gone too far. The red canoes were where they had left them after the rescue mission the other day. Margaret knew they had to be here somewhere. She wondered if Brian would have planned this prank far enough in advance to have packed an extra tent for them to sleep in. But that seemed extreme.
It was going to be cold that night. She hoped against hope that there was a mineshaft they had missed behind the door in the cliff. Some other place that Mom and the Swains could be that would make sense. At and least underground they would be a little bit warmer. They could even make a fire.
Or maybe Bill Williams had swung by in a motor boat and taken them back to Moose Lips Lodge for drinks and conversation. That would be okay, too.
Either way, why hadn’t Mom left a note?
“Let’s get some sleep,” Robert said. The light from the campfire flickered over his face, casting an orange glow on against his umber complexion. The shadows under his eyes had deepened significantly over the course of the day. “We’ll find where they’re hiding in the morning.”
“This game is ridiculous,” Ellie said. “What could they possibly have to gain by trying to scare us?”
“Who knows,” Margaret said. “Not like Brian has ever needed a reason to torment us. It was his favourite thing to do, growing up.”
“This is extreme,” Ellie said. “Even for him.”
Robert spread the coals out so they would cool off more quickly. They stayed just long enough to be sure no other branches were going to flare up. Then Robert said,” Come on. Time for bed.”
The campsite was eerily quiet without the shuffling noises from the neighbouring tents. Margaret would have given anything to hear her mother setting in next to Frank, the hushed sound of their voices as he educated her about some insignificant detail. Her polite listening noises as she snuggled into her bag and enjoyed the company of a man who didn’t beat her and scream abuses and threaten her children. Even if he was an asshole, Frank wasn’t that bad.
Brian wasn’t either. This was utterly bizarre behaviour from both of them. And why would Mom and Gerald go along with it? There was no other explanation, though. Unless they’d find another way into the mine and couldn’t get back out again. The thought gave Margaret chills.
“I hope they aren’t trapped somewhere,” Ellie said, as she wrapped herself in her own blanked, echoing Margaret’s feelings. “It’s going to be cold tonight.”
“Try to sleep,” Robert said. “Both of you. We’ll look tomorrow. They’ll be alright for one night.”
“Until we find them,” Ellie said. “And I kill them.”
“That’s the spirit,” Robert said.
Then they were quiet. Margaret listened to the sound of Robert and Ellie breathing. She tried her time her own breaths to land seamlessly between theirs, creating a soft rhythm of exhalations. It was a calming trick she had developed as a child and she and Ellie were often curled together in her bed, under the blanket, waiting for the yelling to stop. Eventually, she always managed to sleep.
And it worked this night, too. So softly that she didn’t realize it was happening, sleep crept up and claimed Margaret. At least, she thought it had. Her body felt leaden and her thoughts were fuzzy, like she was thinking through cotton balls. No. That didn’t make any sense. But she hovered there on the edge of sleep, not quite in this world and not quiet dreaming. She was warm between the bodies of Ellie and Robert. Comfortable.
Then she heard the footsteps.
Margaret tried to sit up, but felt like there was something sitting on her chest, pinning her to the air mattress. She couldn’t move. Her eyes roamed around, trying to catch some shadow or some flash of movement from outside. But it was too dark. She could see nothing. All she could hear was the breathing of Ellie and Robert, and the shuffling footsteps outside their tent.
Panic gripped Margaret. Why couldn’t she move? Was that Brian outside again? Was he going to start shaking the tent?
Ragged breathing from outside joined the chorus that Margaret had tried so hard to create. Ragged breath and shuffling steps, coming closer. Margaret’s heart hammered so hard in her chest, she thought it would wake the others.
But they didn’t wake. They didn’t seem to hear anything going on outside.
Sleep paralysis, Margarget thought. Maybe she was dreaming. She had heard of people suffering from sleep paralysis, a strange dream state where you think you are awake but you can’t move. The stuff of nightmares.
Ellie shot upright suddenly, eyes wide. She heard it, too, Margaret thought. It didn’t relieve her. Ellie said, “Where are the dogs?”
“What dogs?” Robert asked sleepily. Then Margaret could move again. She could hear nothing from outside the tent.
“The dogs are gone,” Ellie said.
“I don’t like them either,” Robert said. “But don’t call them names until we’re sure they aren’t lost somewhere.”
“Hmm,” Ellie grunted, and fell back down to sleep. She rolled over and instantly started snoring. Robert fell back asleep quickly, too. Margaret’s heart slowly went back to normal as she listened to the wind in the trees outside. There were no more footsteps. No more ragged breathing.
I must have been dreaming, Margaret thought. She pressed herself into Robert, felt his chest rise and fall against her back, and closed her eyes.
The trees sighed around them, but Margaret didn’t hear any voices, this time. She wondered, just before she fell asleep, if perhaps she was losing her mind.
“I had the strangest dreams last night,” Ellie said when they sat around the campfire the next morning. It was early, yet. The sun was just starting to peak out from between the trees with a soft pink glow. Their breath smoked around their faces as they sipped their coffee. There had been a frost that night.
“About dogs,” Margaret said. Ellie looked at her strangely. “You were talking in your sleep.”
“Yes,” Ellie said. She stared at the flames. “I had forgotten that part.”
“Who’s up for oatmeal?” Robert asked, stirring a steaming pot of thick gray gruel in a stainless steel pot. “Breakfast of champions.”
“Yeah, dish me up,” Margaret said. “I’m just going to go make some room.”
“Classy,” Ellie said and tossed her the toiletries bag.
“Your coffee is a little too good at its job,” Margaret said. “I shouldn’t have had the third cup.”
“Three cups?” Robert laughed. “You’ll be shitting through the eye of a needle.”
“Thanks for the moral support.”
Margaret stretched and made her way into the woods behind their campsite. They’d been using a spot not too far from the edge of the exposed rocks. No one wanted to admit it, but going too far into the pines, even if it was for the purpose of privacy, wasn’t going to happen. There were some things that just didn’t rate too high on the priority list when you were out in the bush and things started getting strange.
Margaret crouched behind a fallen tree and put a hand on one of the outstretched branches for balance. The bark had fallen away in large chunks, revealing smooth, yellowing worm-eaten wood beneath. Spots that had been exposed longer than others were gray. The shadowed side was thick with early winter frost, but the morning sun was quickly burning off the crystals and leaving droplets behind. Except…
“Guys!” she shouted, pulling up her pants and spinning around to search the trees behind her. “Come quick!”
“I really don’t need to see it,” Ellie called back.
But Robert heard the urgency in her voice. “What is it?”
Margaret stared at the log she had been holding on to. Her handprint was just starting to fade as the sun burned up the layer of frost on the dark side. And beside it, there was another print. Longer, thinner fingers had wrapped over the log in the moments before she had come back here. Margaret scanned the ground around her.
“There are footprints in the frost,” she said. Robert stood by the tents searching the ground, but the sun had already kissed away the evidence. “There was a handprint on the log next to mine.”
Her heart sank as she looked at the log. It was covered in dew now, the imprint had dissolved back into the smooth bark as if it had never been there. Maybe it never had.
“Are you sure?” Robert said. “Maybe they were your own prints.”
“No.” Margaret shook her head emphatically and kept her eye on the trees. Someone was definitely out there. “They couldn’t have been mine. The handprint was too big, and It was pointed the wrong way. And the footprints…”
“Are nowhere to be found” Ellie said. Her eyes tightened at the corners. Margaret knew she was breaching their contract by speaking of this. But this wasn’t just her imagination. She had seen the prints. “They were probably yours, Maggie.”
But she had to say something. If she didn’t tell someone she was going to go insane thinking about it. Wondering. No. It hadn’t been her imagination. “Whoever made them was barefoot,” Margaret said.
After they had finished breakfast, Robert packed day bags for each of them. Ellie cleaned up the coffee and oatmeal dishes. Margaret just stared into the fire. Nobody spoke. She knew it sounded crazy. She knew she had a history of thinking and saying crazy things. But Ellie and Robert had always been the ones who believed her, no matter what.
Now they just seemed angry. Silently refusing to acknowledge what she had told them. Angry that she had said words like that out lout and allowed the fear to creep into them as well.
That was what the pact was all about. When you’re out in the wild, sometimes you get scared. Sometimes you think you see things and hear things. In the city, you can talk about it and laugh it off and reassure one another that there is nothing the matter. Out here, in the bush, it didn’t work like that.
Fear was contagious out here. The forest plays tricks on you. It tries to get you to believe your own fears, believe in the things your imagination twists out of rocks and shadows and long, finger-like branches. And when you spoke about the out loud, out here, they didn’t go away. Speaking about them made them real. Not just for yourself. It became real for everyone else, too.
She shouldn’t have broken the pact. Now Ellie and Robert had that sinking feeling in their stomachs as well. That feeling like they were at the top of the rollercoaster, just hovering on the edge of the drop. But there was no giggling carnie at the end of this ride, no safe delivery home. There was just the plunge into darkness, into the wild, where it was just going to get worse and worse.
Margaret knew. This was how it always started. And how, before she and Ellie had come up with the pact, she and her sister had almost ended up killing one another trying to fight of some imaginary enemy that had grown so real in their minds that they didn’t even believe in themselves anymore.
This wasn’t the first time Margaret and Ellie had been trapped in the north.
When the RCMP officers found the girls, fourteen and twelve years old, half-starved and more than a little crazed, they had scared one another so badly with imagined noises and shadows that they were ready to turn on one another.
They boy who had been with them, Cameron Charles, hadn’t fared so well.
They refused to speak, for weeks, after the police had found them and brought them back to La Crosse. They didn’t know what had happened to Cameron. They had lost track of everything except this mad idea that they needed to watch the other one.
When Cameron’s body was found, miles from their campsite, it appeared he had been running, and tripped. He fell down a steep, rocky embankment, and hit his head. It was hard to tell, since wild animals had been after him. But the police never suspected foul play. Neither of the girls was ever charged with anything.
Margaret and Ellie came up with the pact, then. When your mind starts playing tricks on you out in the woods, you keep it to yourself. Act normal, and everything will be normal. Act afraid, and you will find things to be afraid of. Or they will find you.
Margaret only hoped that it wasn’t too late to keep her superstitious nonsense to herself.
“Ready to explore?” Robert asked. His tight smile suggested that he wasn’t feeling his usual relaxed, carefree self. “I’ll be you my peanut butter granola bar we find them before lunch, laughing it up just inside the mineshaft.”
“There was no inside to that mineshaft,” Ellie said. “It was just a room.”
One room. With stuff for one person. On person who could be living there, just up the hill from their campsite, untying canoes and creeping around their tent at night—
“That was yesterday. Today is today,” Robert said. “They probably hid the entrance. That’s what I would do.”
“You would never do something like this,” Margaret said.
Robert didn’t answer.
“I’ll go in,” Margaret said, suddenly. As if she could take back her words by doing something she really didn’t want to do. She didn’t want to have anything to do with Drake Mine. “I should be the one to go in first.”
“We’ll go in together,” Robert said, sensibly.
But she didn’t want him to, she found. Normally, Margaret loved Robert’s quiet chivalry. The way he supported her without even needing to be celebrated or acknowledged for it. He did it as naturally as he breathed. But she didn’t want him to. Not now.
“No,” she said. “What if there’s a hole or something, what if they fell?” She avoided the word ‘trap.’
“We all need to be looking out for anything strange,” Ellie said. “I’m with Robert. We all go in together, or none of us go in.”
Margaret didn’t reply. She just kept climbing up the rocks, gaining steadily on the door in the cliff side. The emergency exit. The shanty. Whatever it was.
It was early now, and they had lots of bright, direct sunlight. Margaret kept her eyes peeled for signs that there was more to this mine site than just a hole-in-the-wall. Her eyes scanned the underbrush for bits of ancient foundations like had been visible at the north end of the lake. Or the bits of rust that tinged the rocks where old tools weathered away and disintegrated into iron flecks that bled into the stones.
But so far she saw nothing.
It bothered Margaret that the wood that boarded up this supposed mine entrance was so new. Perhaps it was, once, a part of the original Drake expedition. But there was no question in her mind that there had been someone using it. Someone, she thought, who could be creeping around, untying canoes in the dark, and whispering in the night. Someone who was trying to unsettle them.
To what end, though?
Had Frank known about all of this ahead of time? Maybe he had a friend up in these parts. Maybe he was trying to teach Margaret a lesson about “reality” as he so often put it. Would Mom go along with that?
“Alright,” Ellie said. They approached the entrance to the little hovel. “Let’s do this. Who’s first?”
Margaret approached the rough doorway and pulled aside the too-new boards that covered it. The pale morning light seeped in through the opening she made, illuminating the darkness in watery streaks of gray. Her eyes took in the living space slowly. The room was tiny, mostly bare, cut directly from the granite of the shield. A pile thin twigs, dried moss, and torn fabric lay balled-up in one corner. Tinder, maybe? Or maybe mice were the most recent occupants here, and Margaret had nothing to worry about.
The stone floor didn’t leave much room for evidence like footprints. But Margaret couldn’t shake the feeling that someone had been here. Had Frank and crew disturbed it when they were investigating yesterday? Would they have broken down the door, peeked inside, and decided to look further up the cliff? Or had they crossed the threshold, as she was about to do now.
Margaret stepped into the cave. That’s what it was, a cave. The cool granite seemed to reflect her body heat back at her, making the little room slightly warmer than it had been, outside in the morning air. She crouched next to the little camp stove. There was no accompanying bottle of propane or white gas. Whoever had been using it wasn’t using it anymore. The hinges were so rusted that Margaret doubted the lid would open anymore.
The sleeping bag was in a similar state of disuse. It was flattened by age and deflated by mice. Tiny tears in the side showed where rodents had pulled the stuffing out and made off with their treasure. There wouldn’t be much warmth offered from a bag like that. Maybe she was being paranoid after all.
A draft of warm air swirled around her. Robert stood behind her and shone his flashlight along the walls. “I don’t think this is connected to anything.”
“No,” Ellie said. “It’s just a room.”
The draft stirred again. Margaret looked around the walls for a crack or a seam, somewhere the air could be coming from. “Do you guys feel that?”
“The air,” Margaret said. “It’s moving. And it’s warm. Crouch down here.”
The three of them knelt on the stone floor, their hands held out before them like dousing rods. Cool air from outside sucked past their hands, through their fingers. Toward the sleeping bag, Margaret thought.
Robert seemed to have the same idea. He extended his flashlight hand and flicked back the deflated bag using the end of the Maglite. Margaret sucked in a breath so sharply it hurt her teeth. There, beneath the ratty old military surplus sack, was a trap door.
“I think we know where they’re hiding,” Robert said.
Ellie held a hand up to the edge of the door. “There’s definitely warm air coming from down there. Why is it warm, though?”
“Probably goes below the frost line,” Margaret said. “This time of year, it’s warmed below ground than above.”
“They’ve probably got a fire going,” Robert added.
Suddenly Ellie pulled her hand back. She scrambled backwards out of the cave and into the sunlight. Margaret followed her, her unease magnified by her sister’s stiff posture. “What’s wrong?”
Ellie didn’t answer. She stared into the trees, the corners of her eyes pinched in concentration. It was as if she was counting the trees, cataloging them, making sure every one of them was present and accounted for. Or perhaps, that there were no extras.
Robert stumbled out after them. He tripped on the lip of the cave and banged his shin on one of the protruding boards. “Shit.”
There was a gouge in the fabric of his pants, and a deep stain bloomed out below the tear. Margaret saw the bent nail sticking out of the board he’d collided with.
“For fuckssake,” Robert said. “Now I’m going to get tetanus.”
“You aren’t up on your vaccinations?”
“I don’t vaccinate,” Robert said. “I don’t want adult-onset autism.”
“Shut up,” Margaret said. “Don’t you need to have your shots up to date for work?”
“I’ll probably be fine,” Robert said. “Hurts like a mother, though.”
“Do you really think they’re down there?” Ellie asked suddenly.
“Thanks for your concern,” Robert said. “Both of you. Real sweet.”
Ellie ignored him, eyes still intent on the trees. “Just think about it.”
“Where else would they be, Ell?” Margaret felt another wave of panic cresting inside her. The undertow of questions the flooded out of her mind in the face of primal, animal fear.
Ellie fought with herself. Margaret could see the same fear mirrored in her sister. She wanted to say something. Margaret knew that feeling. She wanted to say something, but she didn’t want to break the rules. She didn’t want to make things worse with speculation. But Margaret had already broken the pact. She had already opened the door to panic. To hysteria.
“The sleeping bag,” Ellie said finally.
“Yeah,” Robert said. “Clever.”
“We had to move it to get to the door,” Ellie said.
Then Margaret understood. All the hairs on her body stood on end, then. She said, “Then somebody had to put it back.”
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